Last March, Microsoft (MSFT) Chairman Bill Gates took one of his company's most nettlesome issues to Washington. Testifying before the Senate, Gates criticized U.S. immigration policy for limiting the H-1B visas issued to skilled workers from foreign countries, workers that Microsoft would desperately like to hire. "It makes no sense to tell well-trained, highly skilled individuals—many of whom are educated at our top universities—that the U.S. does not welcome or value them," Gates told the lawmakers. Senators ignored his pleas, leaving the visa policy unchanged.
So in September, Microsoft took matters into its own hands. It opened an office in Richmond, B.C., a polyglot Vancouver suburb, where it hopes to place hundreds of workers unable to obtain visas a few miles south in the U.S. The office won't be filled only with those who can't get visas. But for many, it's akin to a refugee camp, except these displaced persons aren't fleeing the U.S. They're trying to get in.
Many tech companies say they're unable to fill key engineering jobs without more visas and that their global competitiveness is hampered as a result. "The current allocation of visas doesn't anywhere meet the demand," says Jack Krumholtz, Microsoft's managing director of federal government affairs.
While companies typically send workers unable to obtain H-1B visas to overseas offices, Microsoft's Richmond site is unique because it's located just 130 miles north of the company's Redmond (Wash.) headquarters, where 85% of its core software development is done. Placing workers in the same time zone helps them collaborate. And if they need face time in Redmond, it's just a 2 1/2-hour drive on Interstate 5 over the Peace Arch border. It doesn't hurt that Canada does not put limits on visas for skilled workers.
While it's too soon to tell how well the cross-border collaboration will work, the Richmond facility, like others Microsoft owns in Denmark, Ireland, Israel, and North Carolina, is intended to tap local talent. Vancouver is a fount of tech workers, and the University of British Columbia cranks out its share of engineering grads. Still, the 125 engineers there now hail from 26 countries, ranging from England and China to Trinidad and Tobago. Says Parminder Singh, managing director of the new facility: "I call it the U.N. of tech."
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