WASHINGTON-The United States is at an innovation crossroads that requires Congress to move decisively if America is to remain competitive in the global marketplace, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said March 12.
Testifying before the House Committee on Science and Technology, Gates urged lawmakers to increase the number of H-1B visas, to invest heavily in education and to pump up federal funding for basic research.
"I want to emphasize that the shortage of scientists and engineers is so acute that we must do both: reform our education system and reform our immigration policies," Gates said. "This is not an either-or proposition. If we do not do both, U.S. companies simply will not have the talent they need to innovate and compete."
In what is likely to be his final congressional testimony before leaving Microsoft this summer for his philanthropic work, 52-year-old Gates said U.S. immigration policies are hamstringing the technology industry's ability to attract, recruit and retain highly skilled foreign students.
Without an increase in the specialized-occupation temporary worker H-1B visas, Gates said U.S. tech companies will continue to locate staff in countries that welcome foreign workers to do jobs that could otherwise be done in the United States. Gates pointed out that in 2007, Microsoft was unable to receive H-1B visas for a third of the candidates the company wanted to hire.
"Retaining the world's top engineers is really, really important," Gates told the panel. "The United States will find it far more difficult to maintain its competitive edge over the next 50 years if it excludes those who are able and willing to help us compete."
Gates rejected out of hand the suggestion of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, D-Calif., that the tech industry is depressing wages and eliminating jobs for U.S. graduates by hiring foreign graduates.
"These people are going to be hired, it's just a matter of what country," Gates said. "By far and away they're told they can't work here."
Gates insisted that an increase in H-1B visas would result in increased jobs for Americans, and added that for every H-1B hire Microsoft makes, the company adds on average four additional employees to support the H-1B worker in various capacities.
"Other nations are benefiting from our misguided policies," Gates said. "They are revising their immigration policies to attract highly talented students and professionals who would otherwise study, live and work in the United States for at least part of their careers."
Throughout the 1990s, Congress authorized almost 200,000 H-1B visas per year, but following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, lawmakers slashed the number to fewer than 70,000 a year, citing national security concerns. While many members of Congress have endorsed the idea of increasing the H-1B cap, the issue is tied to the larger and politically sensitive topic of immigration reform, on which Congress remains deadlocked.
While Chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., and other members of the committee told Gates that increased funding for education and research are on the way, Rep. Steven Rothman, D-N.J., a member of the House Appropriations Committee, warned that there are economic realties that must be dealt with.
Gates listened to Rothman and wryly noted, "I've personally written over $5 billion to the U.S. government. I'm glad you are working so hard to make sure it's well spent."