RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Now, a look at one part of the immigration debate in Congress: a proposed increase in H1-B visas. Those are the visas that allow companies to hire skilled foreign workers. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports in today's "Business Bottom Line," offering more of those visas is controversial, especially among American tech workers of a certain age.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Here in Seattle, people still have fond memories of the 1990s tech boom.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do you want a cup of coffee?
KASTE: Take a middle-aged computer programmer to breakfast, and he'll tell you some tales.
JOHN SCHROEDER: Basically, if you weren't drooling on yourself, we would hire you.
KASTE: John Schroeder remembers desperate companies hiring kids straight out of college - zero experience; 80,000 a year. Nowadays, those Gen-X software guys face a very different reality.
SCHROEDER: I do have friends who have been out of work. Some of them have been willing to go from being kind of a senior architect person to being a code monkey on a project, for less money.
KASTE: But that's where you start to see a paradox these days because lately, here in Seattle, tech companies are once again complaining that they can't find enough programmers.
BRAD SMITH: We had over 3,500 open engineering jobs at the end of 2012. That was an increase of 44 percent, year over year.
KASTE: Brad Smith is general counsel at Microsoft, and managers are making similar complaints over at Amazon and at smaller companies. Everybody's way behind on their head count. Microsoft says that's why it's asking Congress for more H1-B visas. Temporary visa holders - from places like India and China - already make up about 10 percent of the company's workforce in the U.S., and Smith says it needs more.
SMITH: The biggest gating factor on the industry's ability to keep innovating, and keep producing more products, is the ability to hire more engineers. It is slowing us down.
KASTE: But Mitch Ericson isn't buying it.
MITCH ERICSON: If you really do need people then why, at the very least, didn't I get a call?
KASTE: Ericson has been applying for jobs at Microsoft since before he finished his computer science bachelor's degree last summer. He is, admittedly, a nontraditional candidate for entry-level software work. This was a late career change for him, and he's 60. But he figures if the need is so great, Microsoft could at least take a look at him.
ERICSON: You know, usually, thing's a pyramid - right? They need 3,000 people up here, and they got 6,000 down below. So you promote from within. And then you get down to the bottom, at the entry-level. Now, we need people at the entry-level. That's me. We're going to hire Mitch now.
KASTE: Microsoft says the experience of one frustrated job hunter doesn't disprove the shortage of workers. And that's true. To understand a job market, you really want data. At U.C. Davis, computer science professor Norman Matloff points to one statistic in particular.
NORMAN MATLOFF: Salaries would be going up, and they're not - OK?
KASTE: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, wages for computer programmers have stagnated. In fact, between 2001 and 2011, the mean hourly wage didn't even keep up with inflation. It's still less than $40. Microsoft says there have been some healthy increases recently, not reflected in the government numbers. But for critics of the system, it's apparent that the H1-B visas work as a kind of pressure-release valve on pay. Matloff also thinks the visas let companies avoid hiring older programmers.
MATLOFF: You can be an exact fit but if you're 35, you're probably not going to even get a phone call. And meanwhile, the company is going to tell the press that there's just not any qualified people.
KASTE: Microsoft disputes this analysis. It says H1-B workers actually cost more because of the legal fees involved, and it hires foreigners only when it has no choice. And in fact, the law does require an employer to show that it can't find Americans. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In fact, most prospective employers can avoid having to show they've recruited Americans, as long as they meet certain guidelines.] But that process inspires a lot of cynicism, even from one of the people who wrote the law.
BRUCE MORRISON: You hire the alien first, and then you manipulate the regulatory system to prove that you can't find an American.
KASTE: Bruce Morrison shaped the H1-B system as chairman of the House Immigration Committee two decades ago. Now, as an immigration lawyer and a lobbyist, he says employers have become too fond of the temporary foreign workers.
MORRISON: One factor is that if people are here on H1-Bs, they are less demanding than Americans - who have choices about where they might work.
KASTE: Morrison would rather see easier access to permanent residency - green cards - so the foreign workers aren't, as some put it, indentured servants. At Microsoft, Brad Smith says he's all for more green cards. But right now, the company is focused on what's politically feasible - primarily, more H1-Bs; with the visa fees going to fund education in science, engineering and math in American schools.
Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.