WASHINGTON – Microsoft is so eager to find qualified engineers and programmers for its thousands of vacancies that it has offered to pay a bounty to the government in exchange for extra visas to import more foreign workers.
The proposal, which also would raise fees on other corporations seeking to tap the additional visas, was intended to help jump-start immigration reform that had stalled in Congress. But the tactic may have backfired.
Microsoft’s proposal has sparked concerns – both old and new – about the visa program that has allowed companies to recruit hundreds of thousands of well-educated foreign nationals to fill U.S. jobs.
Researchers claim that some companies use the visas to bypass older, more expensive American job seekers.
But most troubling to critics is the fact many employers need not prove they are unable to find qualified Americans before turning to foreign hires.
Microsoft rejects those claims. The company says its dilemma is simple math: The Redmond-based software giant has more than 3,400 openings for researchers, engineers and developers, and new jobs are cropping up faster than new hires.
“The biggest myth people have is that a company like Microsoft somehow looks to foreign workers as an easy supply to displace American workers,” said Karen Jones, Microsoft’s deputy general counsel for human resources. “We simply cannot find qualified Americans to fill these jobs.”
Still, skepticism about the program could hinder attempts by Microsoft and its allies to persuade Congress to grant 20,000 extra H-1B visas annually for jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. Brad Smith, Microsoft executive vice president and general counsel, unveiled that proposal during a speech in Washington, D.C., in September, calling the skilled-labor shortage an economic crisis.
What’s more, President Barack Obama’s re-election – heavily supported by Latinos – has elevated comprehensive immigration reform into a second-term priority. That could complicate efforts at piecemeal legislation lifting the quota only for skilled guest workers, something the backers of a half-dozen bipartisan bills attempted to do without success in the current Congress.
Even experts who believe the visas are needed say they’re rife with loopholes that bump Americans out of jobs.
And they urge closer scrutiny for a program that – for all its image as a tool for recruiting the world’s best and brightest – requires for entry nothing more than a bachelor’s degree.
Norm Matloff, professor of computer science at the University of California-Davis who has analyzed H-1B visas, argues the guest workers should command premium salaries given their presumed sought-after skills. Yet according to Matloff’s research, the foreigners as a group are underpaid compared with American citizens and permanent residents with comparable experience.
“The fundamental motivation is cheap labor,” Matloff said.
Microsoft is pushing a two-pronged solution for the federal government to raise $500 million a year by tacking an extra $10,000 fee for each newly created H-1B visa and $15,000 for each green card and use the money to bolster STEM education for Americans.
H-1B visas and what Microsoft wants
Congress created the H-1B visa program in 1990 particularly to shore up hiring in science-related fields.
The annual cap on visas is 65,000, but has fluctuated over the years to as high as 195,000. People hired by universities and nonprofit organizations are exempt from the cap, as are 20,000 guest workers admitted each year who hold at least a master’s degree from an American college or university.
Microsoft is among the nation’s heaviest corporate users of H-1B visas, accounting for 10 percent of its U.S. workforce of 57,400. The company said it applied for an average of 850 visas each year between 2010 and 2011 for new employees on their first H-1B visa.
In addition to raising the visa cap, Microsoft wants Congress to free up 20,000 extra green cards a year so more temporary foreign hires could become permanent U.S. residents. Without a green card, visa holders can stay three years with a chance to renew for three more.
Though Congress conceived the H-1B visa program as a stopgap solution for select labor shortages, Microsoft routinely seeks permanent status for all its foreign employees in the United States. Jones said such policy attests to the quality of its hires.
In fiscal 2011, Microsoft sponsored more than 4,700 H-1B workers for green cards. But the company said 2011 was an aberration and that its green-card applications typically average about 2,000 a year.
In making the case for lifting the cap on visas, Microsoft notes the unemployment rate in computer-related occupations is below the 4 percent it says indicates full employment.
In addition, Americans are earning too few computer science and engineering degrees to keep pace with demand, while nearly half of graduate degrees awarded by U.S. schools in those fields go to foreign students. Smith earlier warned that if Microsoft can’t bring foreigners to fill the jobs, the jobs would migrate to foreign countries.