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Originally published May 4, 2013 at 8:03 PM | Page modified May 5, 2013 at 7:14 PM

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Do visas for skilled foreigners shut out U.S. tech workers?

Even as Microsoft and other tech companies lobby for more H-1B visas to hire skilled temporary foreign workers, hundreds of thousands of American engineers and programmers are failing to find full-time jobs.

Seattle Times staff reporters

What are H-1B visas?

Congress created the H-1B visa program in 1990 to bolster the temporary labor pool of skilled workers, particularly in technology occupations.

The visa cap is set at 65,000, with 20,000 more earmarked for foreigners with at least a master’s degree. The cap does not apply to people hired by nonprofits and research institutions, so the total number of guest workers on H-1B visas is unknown.

Workers can stay for three years, and their employers can renew the visas for three more years. H-1B visa holders must be college graduates, and half of them also have earned master’s or doctorate degrees.

Forty percent of the workers whose visas were approved in 2011 were in their 20s or younger, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Microsoft is the single-biggest user of H-1B visas in Washington state. But a large collective share of H-1B visas are snapped up by firms that provide technology services on contract. Many of those firms use workers from India.

Kyung M. Song

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Last year, Mitchell Erickson earned what he believed would be his ticket to a lucrative new career: a bachelor’s degree in computer science and software engineering from the University of Washington, Bothell.

Erickson, a former community-college philosophy instructor, feared his days of making a living teaching symbolic language and logic couldn’t last. So sensing an intellectual similarity between philosophy and computer coding, Erickson decided to go back to school.

Though he was then in his late 50s, Erickson figured the drumbeat of complaints from Microsoft and other tech companies about a dearth of good applicants promised an easy career switch.

Nine months past his graduation, however, Erickson has yet to find full-time work.

“When I saw my (philosophy) career was going to be over, I retrained myself,” Erickson, now 60, said. “What good is that if I’m not actually going to get a job?”

Erickson is among hundreds of thousands of jobless or underemployed programmers and engineers nationwide who’ve had difficulty finding full-time work despite reports of a scarcity of qualified American high-tech workers.

Microsoft, for instance, says it has such trouble filling its more than 3,000 vacancies for software developers and engineers it expects to offer a third of those jobs to foreigners, the vast majority of them recruited off U.S. college campuses.

The national unemployment rate for computer and math occupations is about half that for the general population. But the plight of the struggling workers in those fields has become a flashpoint for controversy in Congress over immigration reform, specifically how many more skilled foreign workers to allow in and under what terms.

Erickson, who graduated with a 3.52 GPA, has applied for more than 150 jobs, several of them at Microsoft. In February, he finally landed a job he enjoys as project manager for a Web-development company. But it’s only part time.

That seeming paradox stems from a host of factors.

Some economists blame pinpoint job requirements that can weed out otherwise-qualified job applicants. Others contend foreigners hired under H-1B temporary work visas are siphoning away good jobs. Older job-seekers suspect bias for recent graduates, who presumably would require less on-the-job training. Some workers lost jobs that were converted to contract positions at lower pay. Still others wonder if those who can’t find work are held back by real or perceived shortcomings.

Erickson said he can’t help but think that foreign competitors made his job search tougher, although he added, “I don’t know as a matter of fact that someone with an H-1B visa was hired instead of me.”

Room for more?

Last month, a bipartisan group of senators rolled out a plan that could more than double the current annual cap of 85,000 H-1B visas as part of a broad overhaul of immigration laws.

The proposal also would carve an eventual path to citizenship for residents here illegally and give priority to skilled immigrants over those entering through family ties.

Microsoft, Facebook and Google are among the powerhouse corporations lobbying for an increased labor pool of foreign talent.

Employers hiring H-1B workers are required to pay prevailing wages pegged by the U.S. Department of Labor as the average for a given job in a given market. But companies do not have to advertise the job or recruit Americans first. Most employers simply have to attest that visa workers won’t adversely affect people in similar jobs.

Some advocates for U.S. high-tech employees support tougher safeguards, such as requiring companies to advertise the jobs on a national website and to hire equally qualified Americans over visa applicants.

Experts disagree about the causes and extent of the high-tech labor shortage, and whether foreigners are being scapegoated.

To some critics, the purported shortage is a problem largely of employers’ own making.

Peter Cappelli, an economist at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, says a real shortage would mean employers couldn’t find workers at any price. Instead, he and others blame employers who insist on candidates with exacting qualifications and no need for training.

“What do we think would happen if we didn’t bring in these foreign workers? Do we really think the work wouldn’t get done?” asked Cappelli, director of Center for Human Resources at Wharton.

Norman Matloff, professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis, goes even further. He contends employers sometimes just prefer foreigners over Americans.

“It really boils down to cheap, compliant labor,” Matloff said. “You, as the employer, have no leverage over American workers. But you do have huge leverage over foreign workers if they’re being sponsored for a green card.”

A former Microsoft product manager shares that suspicion. The manager was one of 1,400 people cut from the payroll in January 2009 as part of Microsoft’s first-ever companywide layoffs in the recession. The supervisors who eliminated her position were here on visas, as were two recent hires in her work group who dodged the downsizing.

Three weeks later, Artech Information Systems, a staffing firm, offered the product manager a three-month contract at Microsoft for what was essentially the same job she had left. The pay was $32 an hour, half her old salary.

The worker asked not to be named because she has found a new job and did not want to jeopardize it.

Differing views

Nevertheless, other labor experts reject the notion that foreign workers are displacing American citizens and permanent residents.

Gordon Hanson, professor of economics at University of California, San Diego, says his research shows that foreign and American high-tech workers have comparable wages, meaning companies aren’t turning to foreign workers to cut costs. Employers such as Microsoft, he said, are merely trying to assemble the best teams they can from a worldwide talent pool — a reasonable approach in a global economy.

If concerns exist that workers may be locked in to a single, sponsoring employer, Hanson said the solution isn’t to limit the number of H-1B visas but rather to make them portable by allowing workers to more readily switch employers.

Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel and chief lobbyist on the visa issue, defends the need for more imported talent. Smith said Americans simply aren’t studying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in sufficient numbers or depth to keep pace with demand.

About 70 percent of foreign workers Microsoft intends to hire are currently finishing studies at U.S. universities, Smith said during a recent interview in Washington, D.C.

He called hiring new graduates “extremely important” for an industry that’s “continually sparked by innovation.”

“That doesn’t mean those of us who are older are not helping,” Smith added, citing experience, management skills and life perspective as among their contributions.

Smith has also said that Microsoft pays its American and visa workers the same salaries, and he’s told Congress that if employers just wanted to hire the cheapest workers, they’d move the jobs overseas.

The company also offers training opportunities for its existing workforce.

Reliance on foreign workers varies greatly among employers. Facebook, for instance, recently crossed the 15 percent threshold for foreign workers to be classified as a “visa dependent” company subject to more stringent rules on recruiting.

Microsoft is by far the heaviest single user of H-1B visas in the Puget Sound region. About 10 percent of the company’s 58,000-member U.S. workforce are holders of visas of various types. Microsoft doesn’t track how many of the additional workers who come to the company through contracting firms are on visas.

High demand for some

At the same time, many U.S. STEM graduates have no trouble snagging jobs.

Professor Ed Lazowska, associate chairman of the computer science and engineering department at the University of Washington, said competition is especially fierce for the most talented, with his students often fielding multiple job offers.

Lazowska said the difference between a top software engineer and a middling one is enormous. That, he speculated, might be one explanation for why some job searches are difficult. Employers, Lazowska said, seek applicants with stellar grades from well-regarded computer-science programs. They also look for successful past internships and résumés showing ability to constantly update skills in a fast-changing industry.

Michelle Lim can attest to that. Lim, 21, had by November lined up a job as a software developer at Seattle-based Tableau Software, to begin after she graduates from the UW in June. Multiple companies had pursued her, and she turned down a second job offer.

“The field is changing constantly and companies are going to want to find the best of the best” from inside and outside of the U.S., said Lim, who is a U.S. citizen.

The career path for Gary Emiddio Bello has been far rockier. Bello, a software engineer from Snohomish, went six years without working full time after he was laid off in May 2004 from his $75,000 job at Spacelabs Medical, a medical devices and services company.

Spacelabs immediately rehired him as a consultant. But that $85-an-hour gig lasted only 10 months. Bello did not draw a full paycheck again until July 2011, when he became a contract worker at Amazon.

The experience at Amazon led to a one-year stint as a senior Java developer at Expedia in Bellevue. Then last month, Bello took a full-time contract job at AT&T Labs in Bothell, earning $58 an hour with no benefits.

Bello, 62, credits an open-minded recruiter at Amazon for breaking his long spell without steady income.

“My skills did not drastically change ... before I broke through,” he said. Employers “don’t care what you did for the last 20 years. They only care what you did for the last two.”

Bello is grateful to be working full time and does not mind being a temporary employee.

Still, “it was a long while (of) not working before I got my foot in the door,” he said.

Seattle Times staff reporter Justin Mayo and staff photographer Bettina Hansen contributed to this report. Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or ksong@seattletimes.com. Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @janettu.

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