WASHINGTON -- With the recession hit in 2008, Congress put the idea of a "skills shortage" and a need for more H-1B visas in a closet.
That didn't mean, though, that interest in raising the H-1B cap went away for everyone.
New York City Mayor Bloomberg, for instance, last year called the limits on both temporary and permanent employment-based immigration a "form of national suicide."
Microsoft has long advocated for more work visas. But the company's advocacy was quieted during the recession as well, as it announced in 2009 a layoff of 5,000 workers.
Circumstances at Microsoft have since changed for the better.
Microsoft said Thursday that it has some 6,000 open positions in the U.S., and is creating new jobs faster than it can fill them. The company is now using its own workforce needs to make a case for a new type of H-1B visa as well as a permanent employment visa.
In prepared remarks delivered at the Brookings Institution here yesterday, Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel and executive vice president, presented a plan to add 20,000 H-1B visas and an equal number of STEM visa green cards to help companies get qualified workers.
What may make this plan novel is a proposal to require that companies pay the government $10,000 for H-1B visas in a new "supplemental category," and $15,000 for STEM green card visas.
Microsoft is recommending that Congress invest the money paid for the visas -- estimated at up to $500 million year -- in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, education programs.
The company presented a paper with recommendations on improving STEM training.
Microsoft says the 6,000 open jobs it has in the U.S is an increase of 15% over the number open last year, and that over 3,400 of those jobs are for researchers, developers and engineers.
"Our nation faces the paradox of a crisis in unemployment at the same time that many companies cannot fill the jobs they have to offer," Smith said.
He warned that if the positions can't be filled locally "we risk these jobs migrating from the U.S., creating even bigger challenges for our long-term competitiveness and economic growth."
Smith said Microsoft spends 83% of its R&D budget in the U.S. today.
Microsoft is introducing the visa plan by itself, and will likely get support from some groups that advocate on skills immigration issue. But whether it goes anywhere with lawmakers that may be left until next year.
There is a lot of support in Congress to expand the green card program for foreign students that earn advanced degrees.
Although the recession ended efforts to raise the H-1B cap, lawmakers have pushed ahead to create STEM visas that offered permanent residency. The backers argue that such employment visas would help keep foreign advanced degree graduates of U.S. schools, seen as potential tech and business innovators, in the U.S.
Just last week, 257 members of the U.S. House voted to create up to 55,000 STEM visas. The vote for the Republican sponsored plan failed because the bill was introduced on suspension calendar and thus required that two thirds of the legislators vote "yes."
The Democrats didn't want to support the measure primarily because the Republican plan would have repurposed 55,000 diversity lottery visas for the STEM visas.
Diversity visas are made available to people in countries underrepresented in the U.S.
The H-1B visa is more controversial than green cards for advanced degree graduates.
The H-1B is heavily used by offshore outsourcing firms, which puts a lot pressure on the cap creating competition for visas for U.S.-based firms.
The H-1B visa has also given rise to small IT development shops that primarily use foreign workers. The prevailing wage protections in the visa aren't seen by critics as strong enough, and because employers apply for the visa, it is argued that the foreign workers are all but indentured.
Ron Hira, a public policy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and high skill immigration issues, took issue with some of the Microsoft's arguments, including its workforce projections and claim that computer science degree production is not keeping up with job demand.
Not all computer-related occupations have or need a computer science degree, Hira said.
"Is there a shortage of people going to medical school or even law school or in investment banking? No, because smart kids know that this is a reasonable career path," said Hira, although he notes that may be changing for law school.
"Why are kids not going into IT? Because of industry employment relations," said Hira.
In the late 1990s the number of computer science grads doubled and he believes enrollment could double again. "Why not focus efforts on that instead of importing guest workers?" he said.
In terms of visa needs, Hira believes the problem could be fixed through legislation introduced by Senators Richard Durbin (D-ll) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Among the things their reform would accomplish is restricting work visas to 50% of its employment U.S. base.
"This would solve their issues," he said.
Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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