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Microsoft Proposal on Visa Program Starts Debate

Microsoft Corp. is seeking to expand the skilled guest-worker program by an additional 20,000 workers per year to help bring in science and tech talent. But not everyone agrees.

February 7, 2013

The long-simmering controversy over the H-1B visa program is coming to a boil again.

Debate is heating up in the wake of a recent proposal by software giant Microsoft Corp. to expand the skilled guest-worker program, which is currently capped at 65,000 visas annually subject to some exceptions.

Last year, Microsoft called for increasing the number of visas available annually by 20,000, saying a shortage of skilled science and technology workers threatens the U.S. economy. Microsoft made the proposal as part of a larger National Talent Strategy.

Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith said in a September blog posting that the company has more than 6,000 U.S. job openings, and more than half are for researchers, developers and engineers.

A related Microsoft report cited research that the U.S. economy will generate more than 120,000 computing jobs requiring a bachelor's degree annually between 2010 and 2020, yet the country produces only 40,000 bachelor's degrees in computer science each year.

"Throughout the nation and in a wide range of industries, there is an urgent demand for workers trained in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—yet there are not enough people with the necessary skills to meet that demand," Smith wrote in the post.

Microsoft proposes that companies seeking one of the 20,000 new "STEM visas" pay $10,000, which could be used to fund U.S. education efforts.

But not everyone agrees that an expansion of the H-1B program is in order. Critics say the move would undermine the wages of U.S. tech workers and open the door to age discrimination. The liberal-leaning think tank Economic Policy Institute says Microsoft's report "distorts reality about computing occupations," in part because many workers in the computing field do not have a computer science degree.

And despite the visa program's reputation for bringing in the best and the brightest, a Seattle Times analysis of Microsoft's applications to give its visa workers permanent U.S. residency suggests otherwise. The publication found that 25 percent of Microsoft's foreign hires were in jobs classified by the U.S. Labor Department as entry level.

Microsoft declined requests for an interview for this story.

Debates over the H-1B visa program go back at least a decade. This latest skirmish is another sign that U.S. employers have been "re-shoring" work. Smith argues that in the absence of more H-1B visas, the U.S. eventually could lose jobs overseas.

But University of California at Davis computer science professor Norm Matloff, a longtime visa program critic, says there are limits to remote collaboration that make Smith's warning a hollow one. "They've been saying that for years," he says.

Ed Frauenheim is Workforce's senior editor. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.