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Originally published September 27, 2012 at 12:00 PM | Page modified September 28, 2012 at 10:36 AM

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Microsoft offers U.S. big bucks for H-1B visas

With Congress reluctant to admit more skilled workers from overseas, Microsoft is offering to pay millions of dollars for the right to hire more foreigners, with the money going for educational training to eventually fill those jobs with Americans.

Seattle Times Washington bureau

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WASHINGTON — Faced with 6,000 job openings and Congress at loggerheads over whether to admit more skilled workers from overseas, Microsoft on Thursday offered a twofer solution — charging employers millions of dollars for the right to hire more foreigners and using the money for training to eventually fill those jobs with Americans.

The proposal, which Microsoft unveiled in Washington, D.C., is the company's most public foray into the ongoing ideological battle over immigration reform and quotas on temporary H-1B visas for highly skilled foreign labor.

In doing so, Microsoft attempted to sidestep such controversies as citizenship for undocumented immigrants that led Senate Republicans to block a comprehensive overhaul bill in 2010.

Instead, the Redmond software giant framed the issue in stark economic terms: In a nation beset by high unemployment rates, jobs with six-figure salaries are going begging for qualified hires, particularly minorities.

For instance, the U.S. is expected to add an average of 120,000 computer-related jobs requiring at least a bachelor's degree for each of the next 10 years. But colleges and universities are minting half as many graduates as needed.

"It's a problem that's approaching dimensions of a genuine crisis," said Brad Smith, Microsoft executive vice president and general counsel. Smith held a briefing for reporters at Microsoft's D.C. office on K Street before his speech at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank.

The proposal would likely face an uphill climb in Congress, at least for now. Just last week, House Democrats helped defeat a Republican bill that would have granted permanent residency to 55,000 high-tech workers each year by diverting green cards that now go to less-educated foreigners via lottery.

Microsoft is calling on Congress to grant 20,000 new H-1B visas each year solely for jobs in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). The current annual cap is 65,000 visas, about half of which are claimed for computer-related occupations.

Microsoft requested an average of 4,100 H-1B visas annually between 2010 and 2011, more than any other corporation.

Additionally, Microsoft wants the federal government to release 20,000 green cards each year from an accumulated pool of a half-million unused ones so high-tech workers could remain in the United States as permanent residents. Without a green card, an H-1B visa holder's stay is limited to a total of six years.

Although Microsoft offered the plan only in its name, Smith said other employers and trade groups share its concerns about the skills gap. Failure to meet the labor challenge, Smith said, would only push high-tech American jobs abroad.

Smith said companies could pay $10,000 for each of the additional 20,000 H-1B visa reserved for STEM occupations. Large employers now pay $1,500 apiece, along with several thousand dollars more in various fees. For green cards, the fee would be $15,000.

Altogether, Smith said, the fees would bring in $500 million a year.

Microsoft also detailed how that money might be spent. It called for hiring and training more STEM teachers for kindergarten through 12th grade and making advanced-placement computer-science courses available in 95 percent of U.S. high schools that lack them, among other things. It also said colleges should expand their enrollment capacity for STEM applicants, particularly in computer sciences.

Smith called the new $10,000 fee for an H-1B visa a small one-time investment.

A typical new hire for a Microsoft programmer or software-engineer position might command a salary of $100,000 to $120,000, plus a $20,000 signing bonus. Add $50,000 in stock options, plus the cost of an office and other expenses, Smith said, and the total cost might add up to $200,000.

Smith argued that small companies and startups should be able to bear the higher fees just as easily, since salaries don't vary significantly across companies.

But Jacob Kirkegaard, research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C., said raising the fee to $10,000 could give Microsoft a recruiting edge against India-based outsourcing companies whose payrolls are heavy with workers brought over on H-1B visas. One such company, Tata Consultancy Services, is the second-highest user of H-1B visas behind Microsoft, according to a Brookings report.

Kirkegaard said he agrees with Microsoft's dual approach, that the United States needs both more high-tech workers and more and better STEM education. Nonetheless, he said it was unlikely that Microsoft's piecemeal solution would get anywhere in Congress.

An immigration overhaul has been repeatedly thwarted by various factions in recent years. Among them are Hispanics and some Democrats who want to link H-1B visas to creating a pathway for citizenship for people brought here illegally as children, Republicans who oppose expanded immigration, and labor unions that fear foreigners will displace American workers.

"The best Microsoft can hope for is that this proposal becomes part of such a new comprehensive immigration reform to be initiated after the election," Kirkegaard said.

Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigration advocacy group, agreed Microsoft's proposal addresses only one part of the nation's need for temporary workers of all skill levels.

"Addressing the labor needs for technology firms in Silicon Valley will not help the Georgia farmer whose onions are rotting on the vine," Noorani said.

Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or ksong@seattletimes.com

Top jobs for H-1B visas in Seattle area, 2010-11
Computer occupations 6,519
Other management jobs 734
Engineers 462
Doctors/health specialists 271
Financial specialists 208
Source: Brookings Institution

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