Shops seek alternatives: Visa cuts could hobble foreign hires

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While advertising agency offices often look something like the United Nations, things could look a bit different a year from now, given the U.S. government's decision to cut the number of H1-B visas available to foreign workers.

Until September 2004, the number of H1-B visas (given to foreign workers with specialty occupations) will be dramatically reduced, from 195,000 to 65,000. That could affect lots of planners and creatives who venture to the U.S. from the U.K., Australia and South Africa, among other nations.

"It is absolutely influencing whether someone will be interviewed," said Susan Friedman, a New York agency recruiter, noting that agencies are refusing to see applicants who don't already have green cards.

One creative services director at a top 10 agency said the shop has known the change was coming and has planned accordingly. "We have a lot of multinational business from clients. Talent from overseas brings a new flavor, but getting people here from England, South Africa and Australia has been a big problem, never mind someone from the Middle East."

Jeff Margolis, a New York-based immigration lawyer for a number of agencies, warned that the current 65,000 visas available are already getting scarce. "Of that 65,000, Singapore and Chile have been given a special allocation of 6,000 to 7,000, and you also have to subtract all the visa applications that didn't get finished for the 2002/2003 year." He said H1-B applications are up 35% this October over the previous year.

ways around the problem

While the picture looks bleak, both agencies and recruiters said there are ways around the problem and that in some cases award-winning creatives have come to the U.S. by filing for an O-1 status (for people with extraordinary ability). Other agencies are working through freelancers, or transferring staff from overseas offices. "It's not a slam dunk," said the unnamed creative services director, who adds that even foreign staff who have married U.S. citizens are still having visa problems.

Belinda Pruyne, senior VP-global director of creative management at Grey Global Group's Grey Worldwide, said she hasn't found the cuts in visa numbers a big problem: "Talent that is coming my way have already procured their own visas. I think they are being more resourceful."

However, the visa reduction may send some shops looking closer to home. Bartle Bogle Hegarty, 49%-owned by Publicis Groupe, is known as a British shop, but as New York president, Cindy Gallop (a Brit) said, "We recruit Americans rather than bringing people in from abroad."

Fast Facts

65,000: Number of HB-1 visas until 9/04

195,000: Prior number of HB-1 visas issued

6,000-7,000: Special visa allocation for Chile and Singapore

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