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Microsoft visa plan sparks concerns

Offer to pay bounty brings claims of keeping jobs from qualified Americans

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 in order 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. And some economists question contentions by Microsoft and other technology firms about a dearth of domestic high-tech talent.

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, Wash.-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.

Four federal agencies share responsibilities for the visa program, resulting in fragmented oversight. A 2011 examination by the Government Accountability Office found the total number of H-1B visa workers in the United States at any given moment is unknown. The GAO also warned about inadequate safeguards to prevent American workers from being shut out of jobs they could fill.

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 to American citizens and permanent residents with comparable experience.

“The fundamental motivation is cheap labor,” Matloff said.

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.

The H-1B hires, recruited from overseas as well as from U.S. campuses, are well-educated. Virtually all of them hold a bachelor’s degree, and 42 percent also have a master’s degree while 11 percent have earned a doctorate. Nearly 60 percent of applicants were from India. An additional 9 percent were from China and 3.5 percent from Canada.

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. But not everyone is convinced employers have exhausted the domestic hiring pool.

Ron Hira, associate professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology, said computer and math occupations have not run out of American applicants. Unemployment rate for that sector has dipped to as low as 2.1 percent in 2007 – below 3.4 percent currently.

A report earlier this month from the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., accused Microsoft of exaggerating future worker shortages for computer-related occupations by implying that all such jobs require a computer-science degree. In reality, the report said, that’s true for fewer than half of the current workers in the field.


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