"Filling our talent need remains a serious challenge," said Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith, in testimony this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security.
Smith said that as of May, Microsoft had 4,551 job openings--including 2,629 computer science positions--but it's taking the company up to 65 days on average to find qualified workers for open spots.
Smith said the problem facing Microsoft and other tech companies has two elements. First, the U.S. educational system is not producing computer scientists and engineers in sufficient numbers to meet domestic demand. "The unemployment problem in the United States is also a skills problem," he said.
The number of computer-related bachelor's degrees awarded by U.S. colleges and universities fell from about 60,000 in 2004 to 38,000 in 2008, said Smith, adding that 60% of individuals who graduated from an American educational institution last year with a Ph.D in computer science were foreign nationals.
Smith said that although the overall unemployment rate is higher than 9%, the rate for IT workers in the U.S. is 4%, below the government's 5% definition of full employment. "What is clear is that our country is operating with a dual unemployment rate." Microsoft this spring provided $6 million to help launch Washington STEM, a privately funded organization that aims to boost student achievement in science, technology, engineering, and math in schools in Washington state.
But the problem goes beyond education, Smith said. Until more Americans are available to fill hi-tech jobs, U.S. immigration policies need to be relaxed to make it easier for companies like Microsoft to import workers to fill the gap. "Our continued ability to help fuel the American economy depends heavily on continued access to the best possible talent. This cannot be achieved, and certainly not in the near term, exclusively through educational improvements to 'skill up' the American workforce."
Microsoft wants the federal government to raise the cap on employment-related green cards, which presently sits at 140,000 per year. It's also pushing for the elimination of country-specific caps that limit the number of individuals that can emigrate from certain countries. The software maker is most concerned that the caps disproportionately affect India and China, both of which have trained millions of new tech workers in just the past few years.
Temporary H-1B and L-1 visas should also remain available to those workers in sufficient quantities, Smith said.
Officials at WashTech, a local of the Communications Workers of America that represents hi-tech workers in Microsoft's Washington State backyard, did not respond to a request for comment. WashTech in the past has characterized Microsoft's calls to increase immigration limits for IT workers as a ploy to import cheap labor. Smith said that's not the case. "The visa programs that serve these important purposes have come under unnecessarily severe fire through overly broad concerns that the visas are being used to the detriment of American workers," said Smith. "Given the new global mobility of jobs, the ability to add talent to our population is as important now as it ever has been."
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