WASHINGTON — Boeing is an old manufacturer with a high-tech edge, with tens of thousands of aerospace engineers, software developers, database administrators and network architects among its employees.

Yet unlike such firms
as Microsoft and Amazon, Boeing rarely hires foreign workers.

Out of 86,000 employees in Washington state — twice as many as Microsoft — Boeing hired just eight new foreigners with H-1B visas in fiscal 2012. By contrast, Microsoft added 1,497 new visa workers during that time.

Why the discrepancy?

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For one thing, Boeing already has offshored a significant share of its engineering work to suppliers and design centers in Japan, Russia and elsewhere. For example, Boeing did only half the engineering work itself on the 787-8, its first Dreamliner model.

Boeing also is heavily unionized, with a vocal labor force intent on job preservation.

Concerns about transferring aerospace technology out of the country may be another factor.

Among defense contractors, Boeing’s practice isn’t unusual. Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, for instance, have hired a total of only 21 H-1B visa workers in the past five years combined.

Stan Sorscher, labor representative for the engineering and technical workers’ union at Boeing, believes Boeing has opted for homegrown talent out of both necessity and choice.

Developing new airplanes is time-consuming and expensive, and most of Boeing’s white-collar workers are in their 40s and 50s with years of institutional know-how, said Sorscher, labor representative for the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA).

Sorscher also said Boeing trains more and hires better. He believes Boeing is more likely than Microsoft and other companies to look for solid technical, problem-solving and communication skills instead of weeding out recruits with myriad technical requirements.

In addition, Boeing offers extensive in-house training as well as subsidized college tuition.

Indeed, Sorscher said he’s less worried about Boeing’s use of visas than about the influx of foreign workers distorting the job market for those already here, driving up competition and driving down wages.

“The labor market is working fine for Boeing,” he said.

Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or ksong@seattletimes.com