Gates Says Infinite H1-B Visas, Scholarships Needed to Boost Tech Competitiveness
March 12, 2007 Timothy Prickett Morgan
Mr. Gates went to Washington last week, and as part of a series of hearings on American competitiveness in the global economy, the richest man in the world and the founder of Microsoft, politely told the United States Congress that they had a lot of work to do to clean up the American educational system and that, in the meantime, what the U.S. economy needed was the ability to import highly skilled technical labor from other countries without any of the visa caps that are in place today.
“Any discussion of competitiveness in the 21st century must begin by recognizing the central role that technology and innovation play in today’s economy,” Gates explained in his opening statement to the Senate. “The United States has a great deal to be proud of in this respect. Many of the most important advances in computing, healthcare, telecommunications, manufacturing, and many other fields have originated here in the United States. Yet when I reflect on the state of American competitiveness, my feeling of pride is mixed with deep anxiety. Too often, it seems we’re content to live off the investments previous generations made, and that we are failing to live up to our obligation to make the investments needed to make sure the U.S. remains competitive in the future.”
Gates said that we should ensure that every American child should graduate from high school, and that by 2010, any worker in America should be able to get the training they need to participate in the knowledge economy, including doubling the number of math and science graduates in the country each year by 2015. This, he said, could be driven by an additional 25,000 undergraduate and 5,000 graduate scholarships in these fields. Gates, of course, is one of the few people on planet Earth who could make that happen by writing one check. It is important to note that he did not, in fact, do that.
The senators at the hearing did not put up much of a fuss when Gates suggested that there should be no limits on visas for people with high-tech skills to come to study in American universities and to get jobs here after they graduate.
“Now we a face a critical shortage of scientific talent,” Gates said. “And there is only one way to solve that crisis today: Open our doors to highly talented scientists and engineers who want to live, work, and pay taxes here. I cannot overstate the importance of overhauling our high-skilled immigration system. We have to welcome the great minds in this world, not shut them out of our country. Unfortunately, our immigration policies are driving away the world’s best and brightest precisely when we need them most. The fact is that the terrible shortfall in the visa supply for highly skilled scientists and engineers stems from visa policies that have not been updated in more than 15 years. We live in a different economy now, and it makes no sense to tell well-trained, highly skilled individuals–many of whom are educated at our top universities–that they are not welcome here.”
The H-1B visa program is, of course, a boon to high tech companies, since the provisions in the visas effectively turn employees into indentured servants. They work for less money, usually have very specific skills and a lot of education, and because they are being sponsored by their employers, they are less likely to rock the boat. In a way, it is the 17th century all over again. (My forebears came over as indentured servants on Mayflower-II in 1620, and that was how they paid their passage across the Atlantic and out of Cromwell’s England.)
The thing I cannot stomach is that very few American scientists and engineers will work for less money and under conditions that are like the H-1B visas, which just lowers the number of students who graduate with math and science degrees every year even further. It is a vicious cycle for indigenous mathematicians and scientists, and a virtuous one for the importing this talent from overseas. If we could not import people from other countries, wages would be higher for these jobs, and students would flock to them instead of going to law school, to medical school, or to Wall Street. And we might end up being just as competitive in the software field–over the long haul. All I know is, we need more engineers and fewer lawyers, and I am not yet as global as Microsoft or Bill Gates, inasmuch as I want people with American citizenship to get in the front of the line for jobs. That doesn’t mean that I am protectionist. I know people in other countries need opportunities, too.
There’s no easy answer to this. There is only the way that allows companies like Microsoft to maximize product development, minimize development costs, and maximize profits. So you know which way this will go. And if companies can’t get H-1B visas, they will just outsource their entire development lab to India or China and pay even less money to get products done. It will all come to the same in the end. On that, you can bet Bill Gates’ last $50 billion.