MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Congress heard an appeal this morning for a four-point plan to secure U.S. leadership in technology innovation: Strengthen education, revamp immigration, fund more basic research and encourage private sector R&D. Those four goals were spelled out for the House Committee on Science and Technology by Bill Gates. The chairman of Microsoft says the United States position as the global leader in innovation is at risk. Well, after Bill Gates testified, he came by our studios to talk with our co-host Robert Siegel.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Mr. Gates, welcome.
Mr. BILL GATES (Chairman, Microsoft Corporation): Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: One recent undertaking by Microsoft bespeaks several of the problems that you spoke about today. And now, as the company opening a facility in Vancouver, British Columbia, a place where Microsoft can bring people near headquarters, but over the Canadian border. People who can't get H1-B visas to work in the United States who have the right. Why can't you just put Americans doing those jobs on the U.S. side of the border instead?
Mr. GATES: Well, the good news is that we are hiring people in the United States at a very rapid rate. And, you know, our success allows us to do more in research and grow employment. The thing that limits us is hiring the world's best engineers. Sixty percent of the students at the top U.S. universities are foreign born, and we compete with others to hire those people. In the past, they were allowed to stay in the United States, but now that these quotas have been hit, they have to leave the country. And so, on some cases, we take them to Vancouver where we've got a government that welcomes, not only those people for these high-paying jobs, but the four or five jobs we create around each of those engineers.
SIEGEL: Just to clarify, though, foreign-born covers many different conditions, it includes people whose families immigrated to the United States and grew up here but were born in Taiwan or Ukraine or wherever. We were talking about people who are actually here temporarily who account for a majority of the people in graduate programs?
Mr. GATES: That's right. Yeah, the top computer science departments in the United States are 60 percent - people who are not citizens. Traditionally, most of them stay in the country and jobs are created around them. Now that we've hit these quotas, they have to go somewhere else.
SIEGEL: Whatever, if 65,000 of those visas are given in a year, that's it, no more.
Mr. GATES: Right. What happened was, in April, the minute it was opened up, they were all used up. So anybody graduating in June couldn't be in that pool because they didn't have their degree yet. And so, they are all out of luck and yet, they're going to get a job. These are great computer scientists and they all have many, many job offers in many different countries.
SIEGEL: I want to play an exchange from this morning's congressional hearing when Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of California was questioning you about jobs in America that are not filled by Americans.
(Soundbite of congressional hearing)
Mr. GATES: These jobs are going begging and results is that in a competitive economy…
Representative DANA ROHRABACHER (Republican, California): You'd have to raise wages?
Mr. GATES: No, no, we…
Rep. ROHRABACHER: (Unintelligible) begging, you raise wages. Now…
Mr. GATES: No, we - it's not an issue of raising wages. These jobs are very, very, very high paying jobs.
Rep. ROHRABACHER: Okay. But then, a lot of…
Mr. GATES: And we are hiring as many of these people as we can.
Rep. ROHRABACHER: But let me…
SIEGEL: So my question is, if we're through and get another - if you offered a premium for American workers, could you find them or are they simply not there?
Mr. GATES: We hire from the best schools. All the people who go to those schools, we offer jobs to American, non-American, that's who we build these product teams around. And so, because we're in a very competitive business, we don't compromise on that. Wherever we can get those people, that's where we create the jobs.
SIEGEL: But there is a distinction between saying, it's a global economy, there's a global labor force and we feel, as a global player, we should be able to employ people at the best wages where we can find them if it's a matter of cost. That's the different from saying, look, you just can't find them if they're native born Americans educated in an American university. There aren't enough people coming through.
Mr. GATES: We need people who've been educated in these top departments. And we will pay whatever it takes to hire those people. The salaries don't vary based on what country they're in. These people are getting their job that would benefit - is worth over a hundred thousand a year no matter where they're doing the work.
SIEGEL: Here's what a group that opposes you on all these. The program is (unintelligible) through, you know, through the very technology that you've helped develop all your life, they could be on the Web with their own response to your testimony this morning, and they say this about H-1 visas. They say you've used the H-1B program; I'm quoting now, "to train a critical mass of foreign workers within the U.S., and then use these workers to establish overseas operations." They say, yep, our advantages eroding and the use of H-1Bs facilitates that erosion. What's wrong with that argument?
Mr. GATES: The people who are here on H-1B visas overwhelmingly want to stay in the country. And so these people go on to apply for a green card and, you know, be great taxpayers, stay here and have the jobs around them stay here. It is true that universities outside the United States, like Indiana Institute of Technology, Xinhua(ph) in China - they are seeing what the U.S. has done well with its universities and they are getting better. But the good news is the U.S. universities are still the best, and our top goal is to hire the people who graduate from those schools, but because they're foreign born, they're not allowed to stay in our country.
SIEGEL: You're saying that when you do get to hire a foreign worker on an H-1B visa and bring that person into the United States, that has no negative consequence for American employment.
Mr. GATES: It has a positive consequence because of the jobs we create around that person.
SIEGEL: There will be such jobs, it depends where the (unintelligible)…
Mr. GATES: These people will be hired. They have many job offers. These people will work. The only question we can deal with is, do we allow them to stay here and work? And traditionally, the U.S., because it's so attractive, has had this huge advantage than other countries bemoan the fact that these smart people living here now, they celebrate the fact that we're kicking them out after giving them the world's best education.
SIEGEL: Mr. Gates, thank you very much for talking with us today.
Mr. GATES: Thank you.
BLOCK: That's Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates speaking with our co-host Robert Siegel.