Chicago is looking to attract foreign workers laid off by technology giants as companies in the city and its suburbs seek to lure top talent and fill thousands of open positions.
More than 35 firms in the Chicago area are willing to hire workers on H-1B visas, given to foreign employees in speciality occupations such as software engineering. The companies have teamed up with the city and P33, a non-profit organisation founded by former secretary of commerce Penny Pritzker, to build a job-listing website.
The initiative is the first of its kind and could bolster Chicago’s ambition of becoming a technology hub. It will also help companies, including Caterpillar, Walgreens Boots Alliance, credit reporting agency TransUnion and ticket resale firm Vivid Seats, to fill the more than 400,000 vacancies open in Illinois.
“We have a real need for talent,” said TransUnion chief executive Chris Cartwright. “We want to get the message out there that there’s a very attractive tech community here in Chicago. It’s vibrant and dynamic. It’s both established players, but also an emerging start-up space, and we welcome those workers.”
Technology companies including Google’s parent Alphabet, Meta Platforms, Twitter and Amazon have all announced job cuts amid anxieties about global economic growth.
Last year, the tech industry announced 97,171 layoffs, up more than 600 per cent from a year earlier and the most of any sector, according to human resources consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
The job reductions are hitting foreign workers particularly hard. Those on H-1B visas only have 60 days to find a new post and convince employers to sponsor their visa.
The process can cost firms $5,000 to $10,000 more than hiring a US citizen or someone with permanent residency, according to Don Garner, president of LL. M Law Group, which focuses on immigration matters.
The idea to help out foreign workers first came up when Brad Henderson, chief executive of P33, attended a dinner held by the American India Foundation late last year.
“The chatter of the room was the real worries that their community was feeling around the H-1B visa issues and the large amounts of layoffs,” he recalls.
Together with World Business Chicago, an economic development organisation that counts Mayor Lori Lightfoot as its chairwoman, Mr Henderson started talking to chief executives, lawyers and human resources specialists to figure out whether there was something that could be done.
The city’s leading civic organisations such as the Commercial Club of Chicago, the Executives’ Club of Chicago, the Chicago Chamber of Commerce and 1871, a non-profit small business incubator founded by Illinois Governor JB Pritzker — a brother of Ms Pritzker — also joined in.
“Reforming the entire immigration system needs to be done, and there are lots of challenges with it,” Mr Henderson said. “But in this particular instance, the good news was, we could do this.”
The initial listings on the job website total about 900. Organisers see the potential for many more as more companies join in.
One of the biggest challenges for foreign workers running against time to find a new job is the way that companies often advertise. In most cases, postings do not say whether a company will be willing to handle the transfer and sponsor an H-1B visa holder.
Ram, a tech worker in Dallas who asked not to be identified by last name, said applying for jobs without knowing visa information can be a huge waste of time. He is originally from India and was let go on January 18.
This is one of the problems the website is seeking to resolve. Jobs posted will come from employers already sponsoring H-1B visas.
Family is another source of stress for those visa holders. If their H-1B status is terminated, their spouses and children will also lose the right to live and work in the US, Mr Garner said.
“A lot of times, the family is forgotten in all of this,” he said. “It’s something that can be very distressing.”
Chicago is grappling with rising crime since the pandemic that has sparked outrage among residents and business leaders. The Windy City has also faced some high-profile corporate departures in the past year, including hedge fund Citadel, Boeing and the local offices of Tyson Foods.
Still, the city is positioning itself as welcoming, looking to turn diversity into an economic advantage. About 40 per cent of software engineers in the country are born outside the US, and 21 Fortune 500 companies in the area were founded by immigrants or the child of an immigrant, Mr Henderson said in an interview.
“A lot of CEOs are either immigrants themselves, some of them even came on H-1B visas here,” said Michael Fassnacht, the head of World Business Chicago and the city’s chief marketing officer, who is originally from Germany.
“We are a welcoming region, and this is not just a statement. This is and has to be a long-term competitive advantage for our corporations.”
Best known for traditional industries such as food, manufacturing, health care and finance, Chicago’s economy is well diversified, with no single dominant sector. While that means the city does not experience booms in the same way that, say, San Francisco did during the tech expansion, Chicago tends to be more resilient in harsh times, Mr Henderson said.
“Our particular diverse set of healthcare companies, industrial companies, companies with exposure to the energy industry and the renewable energy industry, really helps us right now,” Mr Henderson said.
“These are companies that make real things, for real people, that are currently in favour, and it’s a chance for us to get some really good people.”