Gates: U.S. puts tech jobs at risk by capping foreign workers

Microsoft chairman defends H-1B program, argues for improving education and providing more funds for basic research

WASHINGTON -- Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates gave testimony today before the House Science and Technology Committee that was mostly standard fare, until Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) tried to make it personal.

"If we bring more people from the outside," said Rohrabacher, referring to foreign workers who come to the U.S. under the H-1B temporary visa program, "will it also not depress the wages in our own country that people like yourself would have to pay your employees?"

"No," said Gates firmly. "These top people are going to be hired. It's just a question of what country they are hired in."

"I'm not really talking about the top people here," responded Rohrabacher, cutting off Gates. "There are a lot of other people in this society rather than just the top people. It's the B and C students that fight for our country and kept it free so that people like yourself would have the opportunity that you've had.

"Those people, whether or not they get displaced by the top people from another country, is not our goal. Our goal isn't to replace the jobs of B students with the A students from India," Rohrabacher said.

"That's right," Gates said, "And what I've said here is that when we bring in these world-class engineers, we create jobs around them. The B and C students are the ones who get those jobs around these top engineers. And if these top engineers are forced to work in India, we will hire the B and C students from India to work around them."

Gates said he wasn't kidding about the problem in hiring the right people. "We are hiring as many people as we can," Gates said. The exchange with Rohrabacher might have continued longer, but it was cut off by committee chairman Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.).

Gates covered other issues at the hearing, which focused on innovation and the ability of the U.S. to compete globally. Gates put much of his focus on improvements to educational systems, which has been one of the key areas of focus in his charitable foundation. He also said the U.S. needs to improve its funding for basic research.

But on some of these issues, Gates was literally preaching to the choir. The committee has supported basic research and improvements in science and math education in public schools. It's the H-1B issue, part of the broader immigration fight, where there is a meltdown.

Gates is the tech sector's "rock star," as Gordon referred to him at one point. And his company provides the material for arguing that more H-1B visas are needed. Microsoft pays its entry-level visa holders well, Gates said, more than $100,000 annually with benefits. He also described a two-year, ultimately unsuccessful effort to bring a job candidate into the U.S. that failed because of a visa.

The 65,000 H-1B cap is arbitrary, Gates said, and "bears no relation to the U.S. economy's demand for skilled professionals." He said that, overall, Microsoft was unable to obtain H-1B visas for one-third of the highly qualified foreign-born candidates that it wanted to hire.

One place where the tech industry's argument for H-1B visas hits trouble is in the U.S. Senate, where Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) has looked at its use by companies that aren't headed by technology icons. This week, Grassley detailed a situation in Iowa, where visas holders are being "leased" by contractors that don't have work for them.

Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) said he wanted to know if bringing in more H-1B workers in science and technical areas "could have the unintended consequence of deterring American students in those same fields" and closing them out of jobs in those areas. "This is a real concern," he said.

"Our youngsters are competing with these students even if we turn them away from this country," Gates said. All a change in the H-1B program will affect "is what portion of that is done in the United States and where the surrounding jobs are created," he added.

"If the goal is to have a series of medals or awards that are just about the best in the U.S., yes, shut down immigration. You should have shut it down in 1900," Gates said. Computer science is not a game played only in the U.S., he continued. "At the end of the day, you are going to compete with the best in the world," Gates said, adding that the question is whether that will be in the U.S. or in another country.

Gates' view was disputed last year when he testified on these subjects before a Senate panel, and that did not change this year. Ron Hira, an assistant professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, said the "facts show that the H-1B program that Bill Gates described simply doesn't exist."

Citing U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services data, Hira said that a typical H-1B holder is being paid $50,000 annually. On claims that H-1B workers offer unique talents, Hira countered that only about 1% of new H-1B recipients with computer-related occupations have doctoral degrees.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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