Visa shortages limit economic growth

Even at a time of 7.5 percent unemployment, Microsoft Corp. has a few job openings: 6,300 at last count. Most pay well and come with an array of benefits. The catch — and the reason many positions have remained vacant for years — is that most are for seriously smart engineers and code writers.

There just aren’t enough of those coming out of U.S. universities. So, companies such as Microsoft do what they can. One approach is to sponsor foreign job applicants for H-1B visas, a program for highly skilled foreign workers.

But with just 85,000 such visas available annually for the entire country, the pickings are getting very slim. Last year, it took 10 weeks for the cap to be reached. This year, it took five days.

Even for companies that find suitable candidates, the H-1B is far from a perfect solution. The six-year visa gives its holder no special advantage in obtaining a green card for permanent residence.Aware of the situation that U.S. tech companies face, Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has taken to showing up at conferences and trade shows trying to cherry-pick the brightest tech wizards with the promise of permanent residency in Canada. His government has even rented billboard space in California with the message: “H-1B problems? Pivot to Canada.” Microsoft is among several tech companies that have opened offices in Canada to employ skilled workers they can’t get into the United States.

Somewhat belatedly, U.S. lawmakers are beginning to respond to the threat. The comprehensive immigration measure that the Senate Judiciary Committee approved last week would increase the annual number of H-1B visas to at least 110,000 and eventually to as many as 180,000, depending on job-market conditions.

Just as important, the bill would provide a direct and immediate route to a green card for holders of master’s and doctoral degrees from U.S. colleges in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Many brilliant STEM graduates have to take their American educations back home because they’re denied access to jobs in the United States.Efforts to attract and retain the smartest workers should be a matter of little debate. Companies such as Microsoft, Google, Intel and Facebook are among America’s biggest economic engines, and they are in a global competition for top talent.

Opponents, led by organized labor, contend that foreign workers displace Americans, but that’s hard to square with the huge numbers of unfilled jobs.

It’s time to give America’s technological leaders the tools they need to compete in a global marketplace. Companies shouldn’t have to open offices north of the border, or across an ocean, to fill the jobs they desperately want to fill at home.

May 30, 2013

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