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.
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.
Microsoft is among the nation's heaviest corporate users of H-1B visas, accounting for 10 percent of its U.S. workforce of 57,400. The company said it applied for an average of 850 visas each year between 2010 and 2011 for new employees on their first H-1B visa.
In addition to raising the visa cap, Microsoft wants Congress to free up 20,000 extra green cards a year so more temporary foreign hires could become permanent U.S. residents. Without a green card, visa holders can stay three years with a chance to renew for three more.
In making the case for lifting the cap on visas, Microsoft notes the unemployment rate in computer-related occupations is below the 4 percent it says indicates full employment.
In addition, Americans are earning too few computer science and engineering degrees to keep pace with demand, while nearly half of graduate degrees awarded by U.S. schools in those fields go to foreign students. Smith earlier warned that if Microsoft can't bring foreigners to fill the jobs, the jobs would migrate to foreign countries.
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.
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 the field.
Peter Cappelli, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania, contends a labor shortage is a self-created problem by employers who won't make the investment needed to attract talent.
What companies like Microsoft seem to want is employees with quite specific skills who don't need any training and ramp-up time, Cappelli said. If you scour the world, you can find enough without having to train here and paying higher wages.
Microsoft executives have said newly minted graduates command $100,000-plus salaries with signing bonuses. But a majority of its foreign workers actually earn below six figures, although a small fraction pull down $120,000 or more.
Nonetheless, even critics say the influx of educated foreigners can only benefit the U.S. economy. Studies have shown that as a group, H-1B workers are exceptionally entrepreneurial and inventive, accounting for disproportionate share of patents and startup firms.