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Microsoft, frustrated as ever with H-1B policy, considers options

A conference on high-skilled immigration policy looks at big picture

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WASHINGTON – A two-day conference on high-skilled immigration policy, which attracted researchers from the U.S. and Europe, offered Microsoft an opportunity to voice frustration over U.S. immigration policy.

William Kamela, a senior federal policy lead at Microsoft who detailed the stakes and options his company faces, said the firm will apply for “roughly” 1,000 H-1B visas in next April’s application period. “And we will get maybe 50% of those,” assuming there is another visa lottery, he said. Lotteries are held once the overall 85,000 cap is exceeded.

The company’s argument for access to more high-skilled foreign workers seems unaffected by its recent layoffs, even if the number of H-1B workers it seeks next year is potentially smaller than in some previous years. In 2013, Microsoft, for instance, received approval for 1,048 H-1B visas.

Microsoft is cutting about 14% of its workforce. The focus, instead, was on a need to find people with desired skills.

“At the end of the day, you do run into the very real reality that there are small numbers of folks in very select areas that a lot of companies want that we just can’t find,” said Kamela.

The National Academies held the conference, and Microsoft, along with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, were the sponsors. Microsoft was the only tech firm to appear on a panel.

Kamela sat next to Felicia Escobar, special assistant to President Barack Obama on immigration, on the panel. Kamela made it clear that Microsoft could shift some work to Canada or overseas -- options for other multinationals who are in search of talent, he said.

“If I need to move 400 people to Canada or Northern Ireland or Hyderabad or Shanghai, we can do that,” said Kamela, who later explained that about 60% of Microsoft’s workforce is in the U.S., yet it makes 68% of its profits overseas.

Focusing on computer science related degrees, Kamela said that a recent graduate “probably has four job offers today,” and can go shopping for the best salary offer.

Kamela said that competition for these students is growing because computer science skills are now sought by all the major industries, including healthcare, financial services and manufacturing. “Every one of these industries needs robust IT departments,” he said.

Escobar was circumspect about what the president might do on immigration policy, but said major changes will be difficult. The president has said he plans to seek reforms through executive order in the absence of action by Congress.

“There are limitations – big limitations – as we think about trying to fix the system within the confines of the law,” said Escobar.

While the focus of the conference was on the “competition” for skilled immigrants, Escobar said that “when we think about a race for talent, I think we’re also thinking about our investments in people here, too -- to increase the pipeline here” of skilled U.S. workers.

In talking about the difficulty Microsoft faces getting H-1B visas and high rejection rates as a result of the visa lottery, Kamela said it’s a bigger problem for a startup that submits only a few lottery applications.

“How do we make sure that those companies (startups) get a bite of the apple,” said Kamela, “and they’re competing against us and Google and we can pay more.”

Microsoft may well be the leading corporate critic of the H-1B program, and its officials have frequently appeared at forums and hearings on the topic.

Michael Teitelbaum, a senior research associate at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard, raised warnings about increases in foreign workers.

Teitelbaum said there are “contradictions” with policies that encourage more students to pursue degrees in engineering, science and mathematics, while at the same saying “we want to import more scientists and engineers, particularly, on a temporary basis.”

“The message they (students) are getting is this is not an attractive long-term career path,” said Teitelbaum, who added that U.S. policies have produced a boom and bust cycle in STEM employment.

“If we have mass layoffs at the same time that the employers are claiming they can’t hire enough people, which is what’s happening, seems to be happening, right now,” said Teitelbaum, “they are going to get the message that maybe I should do something else.”

This story, "Microsoft, frustrated as ever with H-1B policy, considers options" was originally published by Computerworld.

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