Microsoft Says More H-1B Needed Despite Downturn

Even as it has cut its domestic work force, Microsoft says that additional foreign staff is needed.

Despite criticism over the nation's difficult job market and its own continuing layoffs, Microsoft's chief legal officer Tuesday once again sounded the charge in favor of more work visas for foreign workers.

The H-1B non-immigrant work visa allows a non-citizen with necessary skills to work in the U.S. for as long as six years. Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) and other technology firms have pressed repeatedly over the years to expand the quotas for foreign workers coming to the U.S., citing the need to recruit talent they can't find at home.

And April 1 marks an important day when it comes to H-1B visas: It's the start of the period in which companies can petition the federal government for visas.

Even though it may seem controversial for Microsoft to be cutting its workforce while seeking to increase the number foreign workers it can employ, Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith continues to urge the U.S. to expand the visa program in a post on Microsoft's On the Issues blog.

"The future success of Microsoft and every other U.S. technology company depends on our ability to recruit the world’s best talent," Smith said in his post.

Unfortunately, he said, especially for technical talent, it's hard to find enough qualified workers here, even though U.S. colleges and universities are turning out plenty of degreed engineers and software developers.

"A recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 39 percent of all Masters degrees in computer science from U.S. universities -- and a startling 61 percent of PhDs -- were earned by temporary residents," he continued.

Additionally, Smith argued that only 85,000 H-1B visas are granted under current quotas.

"Proportionally, that’s like allowing 20 people to sit among the 70,000 fans who will attend the NCAA Final Four games in Detroit this weekend," Smith added.

Despite his arguments, Smith's stance is not likely to cheer at least one national lawmaker, who this year has had a running tiff with Microsoft regarding the issue of foreign workers.

"The H-1B visa was intended to be used only as a temporary measure when qualified Americans weren’t available for highly specialized jobs," Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley said in an e-mailed comment. "With unemployment at rates higher than we've seen in decades, there is no shortage of people looking for work, so companies should need less H-1B visas than last year."

Grassley and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) are planning legislation to overhaul the H-1B visa program, a move that a Grassley spokesperson told would "give priority to American workers and crack down on unscrupulous employers who deprive qualified Americans of high-skill jobs."

Grassley and Durbin are expected to introduce their bill in the coming days, the spokesperson said in an e-mail.

Sparring over H-1B

The news marks the latest in the spat between Grassley and the software colossus. In late January, Microsoft executives announced the company's first large layoffs in its 34-year history. Those layoffs will total approximately 5,000 over a year and a half period, with at least 1,200 of them already done.

Microsoft's announcement caught Grassley's attention, who sent the company an open letter asking that its layoffs target foreign workers first so as to preserve jobs for Americans.

In early February, CEO Steve Ballmer said that while Microsoft will indeed lay off a significant number of H-1B temporary work visa holders, their visiting worker status had not been a primary criterion when it comes to deciding who will stay and who will go.

Ballmer earlier had also downplayed the total number of job cuts, explaining that when counterbalanced with new hiring in some sections of the company, the net losses would only equal 2,000 to 3,000 workers. That, of course, does not mean that Microsoft won't be forced to announce more layoffs in the future, if earnings don't pick up.

Finally, Smith formally responded to Grassley last month -- at the senator's request -- but the company's answer was probably not what Grassley had been looking for.

"Although they are a small percentage of our workforce, H-1B workers have long made crucial contributions to Microsoft's innovation successes and to our ability to help create jobs in this country," Smith added.

While a Democrat-controlled Congress may mean loosening H-1B restrictions, the topic of foreign workers -- legal and illegal -- is bound to remain controversial. Indeed, it has been controversial for years.

In the meantime, Microsoft isn't backing down.

"The larger point remains -- isn't it in America’s best interests to keep the world’s top talent working here in the U.S., using their skills and ideas to invent the breakthrough products of tomorrow that will drive our economy and create jobs?" Smith said.

Microsoft is scheduled to announce its third-quarter earnings for fiscal 2009 on April 23.

Update adds comments from Grassley.

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