8/12/2014 | Chuck Leddy

Sponsoring work visas for international employees can be an arduous and expensive process involving lots of paper work and thousands of dollars in fees to Uncle Sam (and your legal advisor). But when it comes to filling open positions that require high levels of technical skill, especially in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), it may be the only realistic option for your middle market business.

Midmarket companies sometimes look internationally when they find that they can't compete with the bigger companies in terms of domestic hires

Hiring and retaining talent is one of the hardest things to accomplish for midsized firms. With an insufficient supply of certain specialized skills and intense competition for talent all over the world, your company may be at a disadvantage when it comes to hiring. A highly qualified young American IT professional, for example, may prefer to work for a universally recognized company such as Microsoft or Amazon in a technology hub (in Seattle, San Francisco, or Boston, for example). How can you compete with Apple and Google for locally developed tech talent?

When your middle market company simply can't find a skilled American to fill a technical or specialized position, looking abroad for talent makes perfect sense. In order to hire an international professional for the position, however, you'll need to sponsor said employee for an H-1B work visa. Under what conditions does that make sense? It's highly recommended to consult with a legal professional because all cases are different. But with that caveat mentioned, here are the five steps you should be following to ensure that sponsoring an H-1B visa is the right move for your middle market business:

  1. You are offering the prevailing wages/compensation for the position in your market. H-1B work visas cannot be used by employers as a tool for pushing down wages for American workers, so paying lower salaries to H-1B workers is prohibited. As part of the H-1B application process, you will be asked to show the government that you are paying at least the prevailing market wage for the international hire.
  2. The international hire will be filling a position that requires specialized knowledge or training. At minimum, the position will need to require a bachelor's degree and the international hire must possess said bachelor's degree, an equivalent degree, or equivalent experience. Again, the majority of H-1B work visas have gone to international professionals working in the STEM field where higher levels of education/training are standard.
  3. Understand the deadlines and limitations for H-1B work visas. There is currently a cap of 65,000 H-1B visas per year, and there are also filing deadlines set by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Consult the USCIS website for more details. An H-1B working visa is good for a period of three years and can be extended for an additional three years.
  4. Understand the costs. It may cost your middle market business up to $5,000 to complete the application process, and you may need the help of a legal advisor who handles such immigration matters. It's important to be committed to the process because it can get messy and take time. While huge companies such as Microsoft and Apple typically designate several employees to manage the hundreds of H-1B applications filed annually, your middle market company likely won't have the resources to do the same.
  5. Know that the family of the H-1B visa holder can also live in the United States during the visa holder's work period. The Obama administration is considering changes that would allow family members of H-1B work visas to work in the United States as well, but check with your legal advisor about the status of this potentially important change.

Although the process is far from easy or cheap, sponsoring an international hire for an H-1B work visa may be your middle market company's best option for obtaining the know-how you need. Follow the steps above, and consult with your legal advisor for more specifics.

What avenues should midsized firms use for seeking skilled international workers? Let us know what you think by commenting below.

Boston-based Chuck Leddy is an NCMM contributor and a freelance reporter who contributes regularly to The Boston Globe and Harvard Gazette. He also trains Fortune 500 executives in business-communication skills as an instructor for EF Education. Circle him on Google+.