Gates: I need more visas (and flying beer)

Here's Tuesday's IT Blogwatch: in which Bill Gates asks for more H-1B visas and better schools. Not to mention a fridge that catapults a cold one into your waiting hand...

Bill Gates (for it is he) writes:

Our status as the world's center for new ideas cannot be taken for granted ... if we are to remain competitive, we need a workforce that consists of the world's brightest minds.

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We must demand strong schools so that young Americans enter the workforce with the math, science and problem-solving skills they need to succeed in the knowledge economy ... To remain competitive in the global economy, we must ... commit to an ambitious national agenda for education.

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We must also make it easier for foreign-born scientists and engineers to work for U.S. companies ... Demand for specialized technical skills has long exceeded the supply of native-born workers with advanced degrees, and scientists and engineers from other countries fill this gap ... I urge ... lawmakers ... to support changes to the H-1B visa program ... Reforming the green card program to make it easier to retain highly skilled professionals is also necessary ... We should also encourage foreign students to stay here after they graduate.

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Talent in this country is not the problem -- the issue is political will.

U. Ore.'s Mark Thoma has the economist's view:

I agree completely with the message on education, but worry that instead of building upon what works, we are too ready to tear it all down and start over. We have a Gates Foundation small schools initiative here in Eugene that broke an existing high school into three smaller specialty schools ... If it works, great, but these are kids lives we are playing with ... I wish there was a better way to spread the risk of these experiments across the population rather than localizing it in schools that are already, for the most part, having troubles.

As for immigration, I am generally supportive of open door policies. However, I do want to point out that there is another solution for Gates and others. They believe that there is plenty of talent in the U.S., that's not the problem, it's just that workers lack the training they need. Microsoft could provide the training itself instead of free-riding on the educational system. It takes a little longer and costs more, of course, but consistent with advocates of privatization and efficient markets, it forces Microsoft to internalize the costs of training its workers, particularly specialized training.

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The shortage of U.S. graduates in this area may be because students have no certainty that specialized skills in these areas will retain their value in the future ... there is a large set of talented students who respond strongly to expected employment prospects when they choose a major.

Randall Burns scoffs:

Gates has had as much to do with creating this crisis as anyone. Basically Microsoft depends a lot on H-1b visas–and getting them at next to nothing. The closest they have to serious competition are the companies that produced the free Linux operating system. Now, if you look at the LCA filings, you’ll see something rather interesting. Red Hat and the related companies seem to produce an operating system that is less expensive-and by many measures better-but without dependency on H-1b visas.

If Microsoft “needs” H-1b visas, why can’t they pay for those immigration rights (the current market rate would be at least $100,000 per visa)? The reason is simple: despite all their financial and political muscle, Microsoft has never really been about innovation, and they can’t compete on a basis in which there is an honest accounting of all costs. Microsoft is utterly dependent upon practices like buying political influence to maintain its shareholder equity.

There will never be substantial interest in technical and scientific professions in the US if those occupations are more subject to the wage lowering effects of immigration than alternative occupations. Folks like Gates depend on mining the value of American citizenship to maintain their absurd net worth. If you want a really competitive America, we need to think about how to reward real innovators-not businessmen like Gates that figure out how to work the system to their own benefit.

Dean Baker calls Gates a "coward":

[There's] one bigtime fallacy that Mr. Gates promulgates in this piece ... that the strong intellectual property laws in the United States are a reason that the country enjoys a competitive edge in innovation over other countries ... the vast majority of countries in the world are obligated to give exactly the same intellectual property rights to any innovation, regardless of where the research that led to the innovation actually took place ... The strong protections in the U.S. give no reason whatsoever for a firm to locate their research here

reporter questions the need for intervention:

A shortage of labor is a normal part of a free market. So is a surplus. Shortages and surpluses are powerful economic forces that correct the underpricing and overpricing, respectively, of labor. There is no need for the government to intervene by importing desperate labor from either India via the H-1B visa or Mexico via an open-border policy ... The bottom line is that Microsoft (and many other American companies) refuse to pay the market wage. So, they want government to intervene in the free market so that Microsoft can pay below-market-wage salaries.

Bill McGonigle agrees:

Folks I've known who figured Microsoft would be the right place to work straight out of college have all "gotten the hell out" after a year or two. And it's not all about the hours - Apple has a much lower turnover rate and a lower percentage of H1-B's despite inhuman hour requirements. Part of it is cultural - the 80-hour salaried job at Microsoft might be nirvana to a particular H1-B workers, but unacceptable to a well-educated American. Not to mention a Frenchman.

But CodeBuster doesn't:

Microsoft is a tough, but fair place to work. The expectations are high and the competition can be intense, but the pay and benefits were very competitive and the work keeps your skills sharp. I will also say that some of the smartest people I have ever met in the workplace worked at Microsoft. The 80 hour mythical work week at Microsoft is mostly bogus too. If you meet your project deadlines and plan your time well then you can be in at eight and out at five most of the time. Of course there is always crunch time, but realistically you will get some of that no matter where you work.

davidwr offers a thought:

What if there were no immigration quotas? What if we let anyone and everyone except criminals, terrorists, and those incapable of working come in by just paying port fees, putting down a deposit for a return airplane or bus ticket, and showing they either had a job offer or had a month's worth of living expenses available?

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In the first few years there would be a lot of wage-adjustments as certain markets like high-tech, manual-labor, and low-wage retail got flooded but in the long run I think it would be good for the overall economy.

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So what if I and my fellow technocrats see wages drop to below $35,000 for starting college grads and proportionately lower for experienced programmers? If it means a more robust American economy and better cultural exchanges with the larger immigrant populations then I'm all for it.

Buffer overflow:

Around the Net Around Computerworld Previously in IT Blogwatch

And finally... The beer-launching fridge [an oldie but a goodie]

Richi Jennings is an independent technology and marketing consultant, specializing in email, blogging, Linux, and computer security. A 20 year, cross-functional IT veteran, he is also an analyst at Ferris Research. Contact Richi at blogwatch@richi.co.uk.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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