What's an H1-B visa worth to you?


Microsoft has 6,000 job openings, but it says it can't find Americans sufficiently skilled to fill them. So the software behemoth is asking Congress if it can pay $10,000 apiece for additional H1-B visas beyond the current cap.

Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT) general counsel, Brad Smith, lofted the proposal at the Brookings Institution in Washington last week. A mere 20 years ago, Redmond had very little presence inside the Beltway, but today its lobbying apparatus functions as a well-oiled machine.

For some time now, lawmakers have successfully dodged the question of raising the number of H1-B visas for highly skilled foreign workers, which is currently capped at 65,000 annually. It is a hot-button political issue, entangled in broader matters of immigration reform, but Microsoft's latest proposal attempts to sidestep the politics of it all.

The latest lobbying initiative out of Redmond frames the request for more H1-B visas strictly in terms of the bottom line. The country is gaining rapidly in computer-related jobs, the company argues, but our higher education system isn't anywhere close to keeping up with the demand. If Congress would allow 20,000 new H1-B visas annually for jobs in science, technology, engineering or math, and companies paid $10,000 apiece, the extra money collected by the government could be used to improve STEM-related education and training.

I won't argue that there are enough qualified American workers to fill Microsoft's 6,000 open jobs. But if a U.S. company really needs to look overseas for workers because of the skills gap at this time of wrenching unemployment, then $10,000 per visa is not nearly enough. A reasonable fee might approximate the difference between the salary an American would command in the position and the salary paid to the visa holder. Now that might inject some serious funds into our education system.

Alternatively, Microsoft might consider hiring back some of the 5,000 employees it sent packing three years ago.   

What's an H1-B visa worth to you? Let me know. - Caron

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