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Americans fail to find jobs as firms hire foreigners

| Saturday, May 18, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

SEATTLE — Last year, Mitchell Erickson earned what he believed would be his ticket to a lucrative new career: a bachelor's degree in computer science and software engineering from the University of Washington, Bothell.

Erickson, a former community-college philosophy instructor, feared his days of making a living teaching symbolic language and logic couldn't last. So sensing an intellectual similarity between philosophy and computer coding, Erickson decided to go back to school.

Though he was then in his late 50s, Erickson figured the complaints from Microsoft and other tech companies about a dearth of good applicants promised an easy career switch.

Nine months past his graduation, however, Erickson has yet to find full-time work.

“When I saw my (philosophy) career was going to be over, I retrained myself,” Erickson, now 60, said. “What good is that if I'm not actually going to get a job?”

Erickson is among hundreds of thousands of jobless or underemployed programmers and engineers nationwide who've had difficulty finding full-time work despite reports of a scarcity of qualified American high-tech workers.

Microsoft says it has such trouble filling its more than 3,000 vacancies for software developers and engineers, it expects to offer a third of those jobs to foreigners, the vast majority of them recruited off college campuses.

The national unemployment rate for computer and math occupations is about half that for the general population. But the plight of the struggling workers in those fields has become a flashpoint for controversy in Congress over immigration reform, specifically how many more skilled foreign workers to allow in and under what terms.

Erickson, who graduated with a 3.52 GPA, has applied for more than 150 jobs, several of them at Microsoft.

In February, he finally landed a job he enjoys as project manager for a Web-development company. But it's only part time.

That seeming paradox stems from a host of factors.

Some economists blame pinpoint job requirements that can weed out otherwise-qualified job applicants.

Others contend foreigners hired under H-1B temporary work visas are siphoning away good jobs. Older job-seekers suspect bias for recent graduates, who presumably would require less on-the-job training. Some workers lost jobs that were converted to contract positions at lower pay. Still others wonder if those who can't find work are held back by real or perceived shortcomings.

Erickson said he can't help but think that foreign competitors made his job search tougher, although he added, “I don't know as a matter of fact that someone with an H-1B visa was hired instead of me.”

Last month, a bipartisan group of senators rolled out a plan that could more than double the annual cap of 85,000 H-1B visas as part of a broad overhaul of immigration laws.

Employers hiring H-1B workers are required to pay prevailing wages pegged by the Department of Labor as the average for a given job in a given market. But companies do not have to advertise the job or recruit Americans first. Most employers simply have to attest that visa workers won't adversely affect people in similar jobs.

Advocates for U.S. high-tech employees support tougher safeguards, such as requiring companies to advertise the jobs on a national website and to hire equally qualified Americans over visa applicants.

Experts disagree about the causes and extent of the high-tech labor shortage, and whether foreigners are being scapegoated.

Peter Cappelli, an economist at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, says a real shortage would mean employers couldn't find workers at any price. Instead, he and others blame employers who insist on candidates with exacting qualifications and no need for training.

“What do we think would happen if we didn't bring in these foreign workers? Do we really think the work wouldn't get done?” asked Cappelli, director of Center for Human Resources at Wharton.

Norman Matloff, professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis, goes even further. He contends employers sometimes just prefer foreigners over Americans.

“It really boils down to cheap, compliant labor,” Matloff said. “You, as the employer, have no leverage over American workers. But you do have huge leverage over foreign workers if they're being sponsored for a green card.”

Nevertheless, other labor experts reject the notion that foreign workers are displacing American citizens and permanent residents.

Gordon Hanson, professor of economics at University of California, San Diego, says his research shows that foreign and American high-tech workers have comparable wages, meaning companies aren't turning to foreign workers to cut costs. Employers such as Microsoft, he said, are merely trying to assemble the best teams they can from a worldwide talent pool — a reasonable approach in a global economy.

If concerns exist that workers may be locked in to a single, sponsoring employer, Hanson said the solution isn't to limit the number of H-1B visas but rather to make them portable by allowing workers to more readily switch employers.

Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel and chief lobbyist on the visa issue, defends the need for more imported talent. Smith said Americans simply aren't studying science, technology, engineering and math in sufficient numbers or depth to keep pace with demand.

About 70 percent of foreign workers Microsoft intends to hire are finishing studies at U.S. universities, Smith said during a recent interview in Washington.

He called hiring new graduates “extremely important” for an industry that's “continually sparked by innovation.”

“That doesn't mean those of us who are older are not helping,” Smith added, citing experience, management skills and life perspective among their contributions.

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