If you were to gauge the vitality of the local high-tech industry by the number of high-skilled foreign workers in Sonoma County, it would barely have a pulse.
Unlike Silicon Valley, Sonoma County tech companies rarely hire workers using H-1B visas, a special program that allows U.S. companies to obtain temporary work permits for foreign workers.
They fill nearly all of their openings with American-born workers or applicants who have immigrated to the United States, according to a Press Democrat analysis of visa applications by Bay Area employers.
But local tech companies and business leaders are excited over the possibility of attracting more foreign employees — a prospect that is a key part of the legislative effort in Washington, D.C., to overhaul U.S. immigration laws.
If enacted in its present form, the bill would dramatically raise the cap on H-1B visas. Opponents warn it could have adverse effects on American tech workers, but proponents say it will help local industries that depend on STEM workers — short for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
"I think if there were more visas available, there would be more companies trying to take advantage of them," said Cynthia Murray, president and CEO of the North Bay Leadership Council.
"It would certainly be helpful for us," she said. "We are trying to grow some of the targeted industries, like biotech."
At Cyan, a Petaluma-based networking equipment maker, foreign tech workers with H-1B visas comprise about 8.5 percent of the company's workforce in Petaluma — or 14 of its 165 local employees.
This year, the company filed 15 H-1B petitions for the 2013-2014 fiscal year. Of these, four petitions were approved by federal officials under a lottery system that is triggered when the annual national cap of 65,000 H-1Bs is reached.
Another seven petitions were approved for employees who already had already obtained H-1B visas. These petitions, which are not subject to the nation's annual cap, could be H-1B extensions for existing employees or new workers who transferred from other companies. Four petitions that did not make the lottery cut were returned to Cyan.
"I'm trying to fill more than 20 positions over the next few months — that's local and that's just my department in engineering. That's where most of the H-1B recruitment happens," said Scott Pradels, Cyan's vice president of engineering.
Pradels said the majority of Cyan's jobs are filled by U.S. citizens, but sometimes there are not enough skilled domestic workers to meet the company's needs. The skills the company is looking for, he said, are a highly specialized blend of computer science and networking.
Arun Patange, a native of Bangalore, India, fit that bill.
Patange, who received his master's degree in computer science from Syracuse University in New York, found out about the Cyan job opening through stackoverflow.com, a website where professional programmers and enthusiasts post questions and answers to computer science problems.
Patange, who has been working at Cyan since 2011, said he has a strong background in computer networks and hardware. His main focus is gaining experience and honing his skills.
"Once I gain some experience, I might think of going back (to India) or stay a little longer," he said.
In Sonoma County, during the 18 months from Oct 1, 2011 to March 2013, federal immigration officials approved only 99 petitions for H-1B visas.