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Useful Stats: A look at the H-1B visa program by industry, employer and state

October 26, 2023
By: Conor Gowder

As the U.S. does not have a “skilled worker” visa like many other countries, the H-1B program is one of the only accessible ways for domestic employers to hire foreign, nonimmigrant labor in specialty occupations. The current statutory limit on new H-1B visas is 65,000 per fiscal year, with an additional 20,000 available for foreign individuals who have graduated with a master’s or doctoral degree from an institution of higher education within the U.S. This limit has led to a much higher demand than can be supplied, leaving some industries with less H-1B workers than they may have hoped.

Since 2009, the industry with the most approved H-1B visas has been the Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services industry (NAICS 54), accounting for half of the total initial approvals each year on average. Educational Services (NAICS 61) and Manufacturing (NAICS 31-33) historically follow behind at an average share of 10% each per year.

This article explores the H-1B visa program’s purpose and importance, and examines its use by industry, top employers, and by states. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) H-1B Employer Data Hub data is used to examine trends across fiscal years.


What is the H-1B program, and why is it important?

The H-1B program enables employers facing a shortage of domestic talent to tap into foreign expertise, granting temporary work authorization to these individuals without conferring permanent resident status. This increase to the workforce allows for domestic employers and local economies to benefit from additional labor pools that would have otherwise been impossible to tap.

Employers are required to compensate H-1B workers at a rate equal to that of their domestic counterparts with similar experience and qualifications or the prevailing wage for the occupation in the sector, whichever is higher. These regulations were created to help ensure that H-1B workers are not underpaid and that U.S. citizens' jobs are not threatened by cheaper foreign labor.

An H-1B visa generally lasts three years on initial approval and can be extended up to six years.

Those employed with H-1B visas tend to make above-average salaries, making it more expensive to hire foreign labor than domestic labor. However, many employers are still willing to pay this premium to ensure their workforce can draw from a diverse talent pool of skills, knowledge, and experience that may not have been otherwise available.

Since the program was created in 1990, the annual statutory cap has been 65,000 visas for each fiscal year. This limit was temporarily adjusted to 115,000 in 1999 and 2000 and 195,000 from 2001-2003 before returning to 65,000 from 2004 on. In 2006 and subsequent years, an additional 20,000 visas were made available to those holding master’s or doctoral degrees from U.S. institutions of higher education.

However, there will often be more than 85,000 visas conferred despite this limit due to the existence of “cap-exempt” employers. These include higher education institutions, select nonprofits, and government research organizations. Select nonprofits are typically those related to or affiliated with higher education institutions, or nonprofit research organizations. H-1B beneficiaries sponsored by a cap-exempt employer can bypass the lottery and submit petitions year-round.


What industries have H-1B visa holders been working in?

Exploring the current distribution of H-1B visa holders across industries provides insight not only into the industries benefiting from foreign labor, but also potential areas of improvement for the U.S. Identifying the industries with the largest concentration of H-1B workers reveals the largest workforce gaps that are the most reliant on foreign labor. Once identified, these industries can become focus areas of workforce development efforts.

Through their H-1B Employer Data Hub, USCIS provides transparency on employers petitioning for H-1B workers. The Data Hub is fully public, updated quarterly, and includes data on H-1B petitioners by fiscal year, two-digit NAICS code, employer name, city, state, and ZIP code.

Figure 1 (below) shows the number of initial and continuing (extension of an existing visa) H-1B visa approvals, filtered by two-digit NAICS code, for FYs 2009 – Q3 2023.

Figure 1: Initial and continuing H-1B visa approvals by industry and fiscal year


Between FY 2009 and 2022, every full year of H-1B data available on USCIS’ Data Hub, there was an annual average of approximately 115,000 initial and 214,000 continuing approvals. Continuing approvals are not subject to the annual cap, while any amount over the cap for initial approvals is likely due to sponsorship by cap-exempt companies.

Since FY 2009, Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services (NAICS 54) has been the industry with the most H-1B workers. An average of approximately 60,000 initial and 113,000 continuing approvals were in NAICS 54 from FY 2009 through 2022.

While the Data Hub does not go into industry detail past the two-digit NAICS level, the NAICS association provides a breakdown of subindustries. The largest subindustries by business count in NAICS 54 are Scientific Research and Development Services (NAICS 5417), Accounting, Tax Preparation, Bookkeeping, and Payroll Services (NAICS 5412), and Computer Systems Design and Related Services (NAICS 5415). While these subindustries are the largest by business count, they may not match up perfectly with the number of H-1B visas.

Educational Services (NAICS 61) has historically had the second most H-1B visa approvals, averaging around 12,000 initial and 12,500 continuing approvals yearly from FY 2009 to 2022. Educational Services includes Junior Colleges (NAICS 6112), Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools (NAICS 6113), Business Schools and Computer and Management Training (NAICS 6114), and Technical and Trade Schools (NAICS 6115), among others. Many of these are institutions of higher education or related to one and therefor fall under the cap-exempt employer category.

The share of other industries can be seen in Figure 2, below.

Figure 2: Percentage share of initial H-1B visa approvals by industry and fiscal year


Where have H-1B workers been working?

Currently, the top 30 H-1B employers sponsor 40% of the total annual cap of 85,000. Thirteen of these employers are outsourcing firms responsible for 21% of the annual cap, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).Some of these outsourcing companies, identified by EPI, are Infosys, Tata, Cognizant, and HCL. All of which have been within the top ten H-1B employers during multiple FYs.

According to USCIS’ Data Hub, Amazon Services had the most total H-1B beneficiaries approved in FY 2022 at 12,444. Following are Tata Consultancy Services with 9,981, Google with 8,440, and Microsoft with 7,210.

However, these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt; USCIS separately counts related entities within corporate structures. For example, while Amazon.com Services was the top employer in terms of H-1B approvals, within the top 100 employers by total approvals, Amazon Web Services, Amazon Development Center US, and Amazon Com Services LLC had an additional 5,172 H-1Bs approved between them.

To view the largest employer beneficiaries of H-1B workers, click here.

Figure 3: State breakdown of total H-1B visas approved from FY 2019 – Q3 2023


California has historically been the state with the most H-1B workers, with over 100,000 initial and continuing in FY 2022. Texas, with 45,000, trails behind, followed by New Jersey, New York, and Virginia, each with 24-36,000.

More rural states with fewer large employers see a much lower number of total H-1Bs approved; Alaska had just 71 in FY 2022, while Wyoming, Montana, and West Virginia had slightly more.

With the limited number of H-1B visas available each year, it is important to allocate H-1B visa holders efficiently to maximize the benefits of the program while continuing to address skill shortages and promote innovation.

The Department of Homeland Security has proposed modifications to the H-1B program to help modernize, maximize its impacts. SSTI coverage of these proposed changes can be found here.

H-1B, workforce, useful stats