Trying to fill 6,000 jobs, Microsoft pitches $10,000 H-1B visa

Rebounding after laying off 5,000 in 2009, Microsoft says it now has big need for more tech workers

WASHINGTON -- When 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, however, 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.

It isn't clear whether Microsoft's proposed $10,000 fee will replace any existing charges applied to an H-1B visa.

The visa already has a variety of fees, including a $325 base filing fee, plus a $1,500 fee for employers with 26 or more full-time employees. There is a $500 fraud detection fee, and a $1,225 premium processing fee for expedited processing.

In 2010, Congress added a $2,000 fee on top of these charges for any company that has more than half of its workforce on H-1B or L-1 visas. This fee was aimed at offshore outsourcing firms.

The H-1B visa cap is currently at 85,000, which includes 20,000 visas set aside for advanced degree graduates of U.S. universities.

The U.S. begins accepting H-1B petitions on April 1 for the next fiscal year.

In April of 2008, still months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September that year, the U.S. exhausted the visas within one week. But after the recession, demand slowed. In 2011, it took 10 months to use up the visas. But for fiscal year 2013, which begins Oct. 1, the visa cap was reached in one month.

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.

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