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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

October 1, 2012 at 9:56 AM

Microsoft’s visa plan: More needed

I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.

That’s the gist of Microsoft’s ambitious proposal to revamp U.S. immigration policies regulating the flow of foreign tech workers into the country.

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Microsoft wants the government to let companies bring in more skilled workers from overseas with special visas. It also wants the government to release more green cards that were allocated but unused.

To make this more palatable to a country suffering from widespread unemployment, Microsoft proposed fees of $10,000 to $15,000 that companies would pay for extra visas and green cards issued through the program.

Microsoft estimates this would raise $500 million a year, which could be earmarked for science and math education to better prepare students for tech industry jobs. That’s tomorrow’s payout for the fresh meat Microsoft wants today.

You have to give the company credit for floating a creative solution to one of the thornier political issues facing the country. But more has to be done to get Americans to accept the deal proposed by the crafty software giant.

Really, how many politicians will agree to fill jobs with more foreigners, when millions of Americans are struggling to find work?

A generation is entering the workforce with little hope of ever receiving the wages, job security and stable pensions that enabled their parents and grandparents to buy homes and send them to college.

At the same time, the country’s future depends on its ability to continue being a font of creativity and innovation and a beacon of hope and opportunity for the rest of the world.

Building higher walls along the border isn’t the solution. This is a nation of immigrants, and the recent waves built and lead some of its largest employers. The tech industry is full of examples.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin was born in Russia. Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer’s father immigrated from Switzerland.

Then there’s Steve Jobs – the late Apple co-founder and icon of American ingenuity, prosperity and business prowess. He was the son of a Syrian Muslim immigrant, put up for adoption and taken in by an Armenian family in California.

None of that is any solace to American workers who can’t find work today. Especially those with technical skills or training that don’t sync precisely with the thousands of job openings advertised by companies like Microsoft.

Also outraged by talk of a “talent shortage” that underlies Microsoft’s visa proposal are smart, capable people whose careers were derailed by imperfect management systems or office politics.

Microsoft’s “stack ranking” system, which evaluates employees on a curve, regularly empties seats, raising questions about just how critical the talent shortage is in Redmond.

It’s hard to keep it in perspective.

While employees are gritting out their annual job evaluations and the unemployed are sending off their hundredth job application, a new crop of software developers is emerging from schools around the world.

We want it all. We want to help our neighbors. We also want Microsoft and other American tech companies to lure as many of the best and brightest as they can, so they work hard, build careers and invent the future here.

This is a tricky puzzle that has stymied Congress for years. It’s not getting easier with both presidential candidates talking tough about foreign economic competition while pledging to create more jobs.

President Obama went so far as to block a Chinese company’s purchase of four Oregon wind farms last week. Is he going to sign a bill allowing Chinese to take more American software jobs, just not our windmills?

To make its proposal fly, Microsoft and the tech industry need to offer more than just $500 million worth of math and science funding. Here are few ways they could make progress:

1. Create an online portal giving more details about what jobs can’t be filled domestically. Tech companies need to be more transparent about this to prove m

ore visas are needed. They also need to show special visas aren’t being used to fill jobs with lower-cost labor.

2. Use this reporting to create a system that helps government employment agencies and colleges better place job candidates. The data could also be used to focus education and retraining programs.

3. Use the $500 million in visa fees to invest in job retraining and placement services that address the current unemployment. Earmark a portion to retrain and place veterans, who could connect with programs such as Microsoft’s Military Outreach to transition to private-sector jobs. This may not produce top-tier software developers — some people have the gift, many don’t. But it would be a faster way to offset the job importation and make extra visas more palatable.

4. Before tinkering with visas, boost K-12 and college funding by eliminating offshore tax havens the tech industry uses. Microsoft alone used these to trim its federal contribution by $7 billion since 2009, a Senate panel disclosed Sept. 20.

Microsoft is correct in saying tax law is too complex, enables these schemes and needs to be revised. But then the company turns around and suggests an elaborate new visa program.

(Don’t get me started on Microsoft’s tax breaks in Washington state, which is boosting computer -science programs but too broke for just about everything else.)

5. Link the call for additional visas with an equally bold call for broad tax reform, and a pledge to pay more taxes. That would provide more stable, continuous funding for education than unpredictable visa fees that will rise and fall with demand for foreign labor. It would also send the message that U.S. tech companies are doing everything they can to help their country.

As for the jobs at stake, the 40,000 new visas and green cards per year that Microsoft calls for won’t make a dent in unemployment. But they could actually help improve the situation.

In August, there were 12.5 million people without jobs in the U.S. The 40,000 positions are equal to 0.32 percent of that population.

The 40,000 new jobs are more likely to reduce unemployment as the imported workers buy food, cars, clothes and housing during their stay. This is obvious to everyone in the bustling area around Microsoft’s Overlake campus.

Even so, Microsoft’s proposal is a hard sell, especially when you have 12.5 million jobless voters.

No matter what happens, Microsoft gets points for using its megaphone to put an important and sensitive issue on the table during the election season.

It may want to pay us Tuesday for extra visas today, but it’s not being wimpy.

Comments | Topics: Apple, Asia, Billionaire techies

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