Automated Visa Tracking with Custom ERP:Easing Headaches Associated with Hiring Foreign Employees

As a result of the increasing global economy, 40 percent of U.S. companies employ foreign information technology consultants. Explore how one company navigates the murky wates of hiring foreign employees, and saves their legal department hundreds of man-hours by using a custom PeopleSoft module to automatically track immigration visas.

The combination of the millennium bug problem, the Euro-currency conversion, the unprecedented growth in Internet and intranet projects, the continuing drive to automate critical business processes and the need to maintain legacy systems is creating an unprecedented growth in demand for information technology (IT) professionals. Demand for IT workers is projected by the U.S. Department of Commerce to rise by 1.3 million over the next 10 years. Yet, bachelors and graduate degrees in computer science plummeted from a peak of 50,000 in 1986 to approximately 38,000 in 1997, although the numbers have started to rise again in the last few years. The result is that hundreds of thousands of technical jobs are vacant in the $300 billion U.S. software and services market. There are an estimated 346,000 unfilled IT jobs in the U.S. today and more than 500,000 in Europe. The total vacancies in these two major markets are expected to rise to a total of 1.6 million by 2002. The result is that 40 percent of U.S. companies employ foreign information technology consultants.

Automating immigration visa tracking with a custom PeopleSoft module saves the legal department of Syntel Inc., a major IT consulting firm, 40 percent of the time previously required. Syntel previously had to spend about 25 hours per year insuring compliance with government regulations pertaining to work permits and visas for each of its 850 employees who are foreign workers in the United States. While implementing the PeopleSoft enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, Syntel developed an entirely new module that tracks each step in the process of obtaining the following visa and authorization documents: H1-B (for the employee), H4 (for the spouses of H1-B visa holders), labor condition applications (LCA), labor certification, Treaty Nationals (visas used by Canadian and Mexican nationals), F1 (for foreigners that have completed their studies in the U.S.) and L1 (for foreign managers of U.S. companies), as well as the green card process. The time savings come from automating communications between departments involved in the immigration process, eliminating the need for data re-entry and automatically generating forms, checks and reports.

Addressing IT Staff Shortages

As a rapidly growing firm, Syntel has addressed its own shortages in IT staff by recruiting computer professionals on a global basis. The firm has recruitment offices around the world, designed to locate the world’s best and brightest IT professionals. With 60 percent of its current staff in the U.S. consisting of foreign workers, Syntel faces a major challenge in complying with immigration and naturalization regulations. The process begins by a foreign worker applying for a temporary visa for the worker and, if necessary, his or her family. When the visa is approved, the worker can be hired. When it expires, the company needs to file for an extension. Finally, since work visas are good for a maximum of six years, long before the employee’s tenure reaches that point, the company needs to begin the complicated process of filing for permanent residency.

In the past, human resources maintained employee data in spreadsheets and stand-alone databases. The finance department used an outdated accounting system and many spreadsheets. The legal department maintained immigration information in various databases and spreadsheets. Recruitment also maintained employee data in their own separate system. Syntel management made the decision to implement an ERP system in order to reduce manual data entry requirements and ensure compliance with government regulation in both the financial and immigration areas. A major reason for selecting the PeopleSoft ERP system is its strength in the human resources area, a critical function for a consulting firm whose primary assets are the intellectual capabilities of its staff. After determining that there was no commercial software package capable of handling their complex immigration compliance requirements, Syntel managers made the decision to develop their own from scratch. They used the PeopleTools application designer, a single, integrated development environment that simplifies the application customization process.

Coordinating the Immigration Process

The new module coordinates every phase of the immigration process. The first step is filing a Labor Condition Application (LCA) with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to provide notice of the need to hire foreign workers. The LCA is based upon labor department surveys that identify shortages in certain professions. LCAs are valid for a limited period of time and for specific jobs, salary ranges and locations. The new module developed by Syntel tracks each LCA held by the firm to ensure compliance with all requirements. For example, it keeps track of how many employees have been hired under each open LCA, and how many slots are still available. If an employee is transferred from one location to another, the software moves them to the new location’s LCA. The software also tracks the expiration date of all LCAs and provides reports to the legal department that indicate when it’s time to apply again.

In the meantime, overseas recruiting offices are interviewing job candidates. Once a candidate is selected, his or her personal information is entered into the HR module as applicant data. Through PeopleSoft workflow, the legal department is notified of the need to apply for an H1-B visa. The H1-B is a temporary visa category for non-immigrant workers that includes specialty occupations that require a bachelor’s degree or higher. The information required to file for the visa, such as the degree certificate and passport, is collected outside the system. The software, however, manages each of the numerous documents that must be filed and all communications with the INS.

H1-B Processing Steps

The steps in the H1-B process include: 1) a visa request from recruiting, 2) log employee information, 3) waiting for documents, 4) visa processing, 5) typing required documents, 6) review and sign, 7) file I129 package with INS, 8) file I539 package with INS, 9) send for educational evaluation, 10) receive educational evaluation, 11) receive acknowledgment for I129 from INS, 12) receive acknowledgment for I539 from INS, 13) receive query from INS, 14) respond to query, 15) receive courtesy copy I129 approval from INS, 16) receive courtesy copy I539 approval from INS, 17) receive I129 approval from INS, 18) receive I539 approval from INS, 19) File I824 consulate change/duplicate approval, and 20) receive I824 approval.

The recruiting department can login and check the status of the application at any time. The software keeps track of the status of each application, notifies staff members of steps that need to be taken and generates reports that provide management of an overview of when the new employees are expected to be available for project work. When the visa is approved, the information that was entered in the immigration module automatically transfers over to the PeopleSoft human resources module. The system will not move an applicant onto the employment rolls until all of the necessary documentation has been completed.

H1-B visas are issued for a limited period of time, normally one to three years. The immigration module keeps track of expiring visas and notifies the legal department so that an extension can be applied for in plenty of time. There is also a six-year limit on the total life of an H1-B visa. Well before this limit expires, the immigration module notifies the legal department that it’s time to begin the process of filing for permanent residency. This is a complicated process involving 20 to 40 discrete steps. Each step requires contacting the INS and filing certain documents or records. The immigration module monitors every step of the process, keeping track of which steps have been completed and which need to be done at any given time. The system greatly improves the productivity of the legal staff by making it possible to easily identify all employees for whom a certain step needs to be completed, so they can be done together in a batch. The immigration module also tracks the process of applying for an H4 visa for the employee’s spouse and children.

Tracking Other Types of Visas

The immigration module also keeps track of other, less common, types of visas. For example, sometimes the company transfers an employee from an overseas operation to the United States for a specific project. This requires applying for an L1 visa. The system tracks the documentation and keeps track of expiration dates in order to maintain compliance with immigration requirements. The F1 visa applies to students that complete their education at a university in the United States and decide to remain in the country for what is called "practical training." The immigration module tracks expiration dates of these visas, which are normally good for one year. It also manages the new FN visas that were created for Canadian and Mexican citizens as part of North American Free Trade Act legislation.

An important feature of the new immigration module is its interface to PeopleSoft accounts payable module. Each month the legal department files applications for H1-Bs, H1 extensions and green card processing to the INS. Frequently, the legal department requests multiple checks payable to INS for the same amount for the application processing fee. PeopleSoft does not provide an option to print multiple checks from a single voucher. So, the accounts payable department manually keys in a lot of vouchers and cuts separate checks. Syntel developed a process to automate this process. A panel was created to take as input the vendor name, amount for each check and the number of vouchers requested. A file is created which is used to populate the voucher staging tables using EDI manager. The voucher batch edit processes are run to create vouchers from the staging table.

Staffing the Project

The immigration module was the most unique part of what, otherwise, was a traditional, but highly successful PeopleSoft implementation. At the time the project was started, Syntel’s experience was heavily weighted toward the mainframe environment. Despite that fact, the decision was made to primarily staff the implementation project with existing employees. The basic idea was to ensure the creation of a highly motivated project team that was familiar with how the firm worked. A few experienced PeopleSoft developers were hired to provide specialized skills and train the other members of the team in the client/server environment. The project helped to substantially increase the client/server skills of the existing staff members. Most of them later moved to billable projects that took advantage of these new skills.

Management’s philosophy throughout the implementation process was to focus resources on activities that would add value to the company. For this reason, the decision was made to minimize the need for customization by adapting the company’s operations to the best practices encapsulated in the base PeopleSoft system. Data conversion was minimized by the decision that the previous legacy system would be maintained for archival purposes. The order of conversion was also tuned to minimize data conversion needs. The PeopleSoft general ledger was implemented first. Then, a temporary bridge was developed from the legacy accounts payable system into the PeopleSoft general ledger. This bridge, used while the new accounts payable system was being implemented, made it possible to complete all the open items in the old system, eliminating a major data conversion task.

The project, although not yet completed, has already yielded savings that have more than paid for its cost. The efficiency of the financial and human resources activities have been greatly improved by the new graphical user interface, integration between different functions and automated workflow provided by the PeopleSoft ERP system. Management has gained realtime reporting capabilities that allow it to keep its finger on the pulse of the business. And, the new immigration module saves enough time on an annual basis to free up many staff members for more creative tasks. Through these improvements, Syntel managers expect to be able to substantially increase total headcount without increasing administrative staff in the human resources, legal and financial departments. With this part of the implementation successfully completed, Syntel is now moving toward implementation of the project, purchasing and budgeting modules.