Each year tens of thousands of college-educated workers from outside the United States receive temporary work visas for skilled jobs that ostensibly would go unfilled by Americans.

Holders of so-called H-1B visas gain entry into the United States for temporary assignments in “specialty occupations,” many of them in IT. Their U.S. employers pay a fee to the Department of Labor for each H-1B visa holder they hire.

What happens to those fees?

About half of the money collected by the Department of Labor funds the H-1B Technical Skills Training Grant Program, created in 1998, following the passage of the American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act. Employers that qualify for the grants use the money to train U.S. citizens for jobs that might have gone to H-1B holders.

The program has disbursed more than $200 million to employers. About $6 million went to the IT trade association CompTIA, based in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., through two grants of about $3 million each. CompTIA, whose membership includes thousands of solution providers and resellers, disburses the money to nine partners, including four resellers.

The recipients qualified for the grants by committing to send employees who are U.S. citizens to IT skills training. They are OTAi Inc., Jacksonville, Fla., ComputerLand, of Quincy, Ill., Valcom Business Center, St. Louis, Mo.; VanCura & Associates, Orlando, Fla.; IBM Corp.; Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.; Allstate Insurance Co.; Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc.; and Citigroup Inc.

OTAi, a 15-employee IT services consultancy, last year used the H-1B money to train six workers in such curricula as Oracle Corp. and JBoss Inc. certifications. This year, five employees are scheduled for more training, starting in the second quarter.

“We have been able to get our employees into training that we couldn’t have afforded otherwise,” said Hazel Campbell, executive vice president at OTAi. That’s because certification courses are expensive, especially for small companies, she said.

OTAi’s employees are among 2,700 workers receiving high-level technical training funded by the grants CompTIA is managing, said Judy Graham, program manager, H-1B Grant, at the trade association. “We have 25 different training sites around the country,” she said.

As the fiscal agent for its nine grant partners, CompTIA manages all the financial aspects and reimburses the partners for the money they spend on training fees, Graham said. To qualify for the reimbursements, the partners had to commit to paying the employees’ salaries while they are in training.

“It’s a wonderful grant,” Graham said. “Companies are definitely able to train their employees. Our dollars are being spent wisely.”

Businesses benefiting from H-1B grants are encouraged to hire, retain and promote employees trained through the program, Graham said. Once trained, workers can be promoted to higher-level technical jobs that otherwise might go to H-1B visa holders, she said. The jobs the promoted employees vacate can be filled by other workers, who are usually U.S.-based or U.S. citizens.

For OTAi, the added skills translate into more business, said Campbell. OTAi performs such services as network engineering, data conversion, application development and systems architecture and design for a roster of clients that includes the City of Jacksonville, the Jacksonville Port Authority and the Jacksonville Electric Authority, in addition to corporate clients. The H-1B grant-funded training has made the company more competitive when it bids for projects, said Campbell.

OTAi now is able to offer more comprehensive services to existing clients as well as expand its business by acquiring new customers, she said. “This is great for a small company like ours. A small company in order to survive has to enhance the skills that it offers,” Campbell said. “We are very grateful to be part of the program.”

Even though the training often requires pulling employees from client sites, Campbell said OTAi plans the absences far enough in advance to prevent any problems. The clients embrace the training because of the added skills OTAi employees acquire, as do the employees themselves because they become more well-rounded, she said.

H-1B visas are a constant source of debate in the IT world. Some of the largest IT employers, such as Microsoft Corp. and IBM, support it enthusiastically because they say the visas allow them to cope with skills shortages in the American workforce. Opponents, including the National Society of Professional Engineers, Alexandria, Va., deny that the shortages exist.

The current number of visas is capped at 65,000, although effective Tuesday an additional 20,000 was to be allotted yearly to non-citizens who have earned a master’s degree or higher from a U.S. institution.