Facebook question: Why are local jobs going to foreign exchange students?

One of our Facebook fans wanted to know why there are so many foreign exchange students working on the Grand Strand in the summer, when local unemployment is so high.

Horry County's unemployment rate in February 2011 was 12.9%.

We talked with Stephen Greene, Myrtle Beach Hospitality Association, who also sits on the area's Workforce Investment Board.

Greene says the workers come from other countries through work programs, using temporary work visas issued by the federal government.

The US State Department oversees the Summer Work Travel program. On its website it explains the program is open to post-secondary students. These students are allowed to enter the U.S. to work and travel during their summer vacation for up to four months.

In order for foreign students to get what's called a J-1 Visa, they must go through a designated sponsor. There are 68 companies listed on the State Department's site.

Greene says most locals who are unemployed are looking for permanent jobs, not seasonal ones. The State Department says most of the J-1 Visa holders fill unskilled service positions at resorts, hotels, restaurants, and amusement parks.

One site that promotes the use of J-1 Visa holders to employers,, explains another reason Greene says companies may now be attracted to foreign temporary workers. says right on its home page that employers can "Cut costs and pay less taxes. No need to pay FUTA/FICA."

We recently did a story about the impact of the increase in the unemployment tax to Grand Strand hospitality businesses.

In 2008, South Carolina took a $1 billion bailout from the federal government to help pay for unemployment benefits. The state had to raise unemployment taxes to pay back the federal government. Some Grand Strand businesses saw their tax bills increase by 400 percent.

The unemployment tax agency recognizes someone laid off during the winter months as being laid off for the entire year. By hiring someone on a J-1 Visa, companies can avoid being penalized for a layoff.

We also heard from several people that the jobs being taken by foreign temporary workers are just not jobs locals are applying for. You can weigh in below. Leave your comments about the summer travel program, the state of the workforce in our area, or the challenges you're having in finding a job.