Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates gave testimony this week before the US House Science and Technology Committee that was mostly standard fare, until US 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 US 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," he said. "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 might have continued longer, but it was cut off by committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.).
Gates covered other issues at the hearing, which focused on innovation and the ability of the US to compete globally. Gates put much of his focus on improvements to education systems, which has been one of the key areas of focus in his charitable foundation. He also said the US needs to improve its funding for basic research.
But on some of these issues, Gates is literally preaching to 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's 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 US$100,000 annually with benefits. He also described a two-year, ultimately unsuccessful effort to bring a job candidate into the US that failed because of a visa.