chairman, Microsoft Corp.

Congress should do away with limits on how many foreign workers technology companies can bring to the U.S. under what’s known as the H1-B visa program, Bill Gates, Microsoft Corp. chairman said Wednesday.

Asked what he would do if he were king for a day and could make any changes to U.S. policy, Gates said he’d eliminate the H1-B program, which sets limits on visas granted to highly skilled foreign workers. Gates participated in a Microsoft-sponsored panel discussion in Washington, D.C., about ways to spur U.S. innovation and compete with other nations.

“The whole idea behind the H1-B thing is, ‘Don’t let too many smart people come into the country,'” Gates said. “The thing basically doesn’t make sense. That’s just wounding ourselves in this global competition.”The whole idea behind the H1-B thing is, ‘Don’t let too many smart people come into the country’. The thing basically doesn’t make sense. That’s just wounding ourselves in this global competition.Bill Gates>Text Gates and Richard Rashid, senior vice president for Microsoft Research, both complained that the company cannot find enough qualified computer science applicants, and that the H1-B visa limit, which now stands at 65,000 workers per year, has hurt their ability to attract top IT workers.

The U.S. education system is producing fewer math and science graduates than countries like India and China, and top IT workers in those countries and others are more often opting to stay home instead of work at a U.S. company, Gates said.

Gates found little argument to his H1-B stance at the forum, which included two U.S. lawmakers and a university president. Phillip Bond, undersecretary for technology at the U.S. Department of Commerce, noted that the H1-B debate is complicated because U.S. engineers currently have a larger unemployment rate than the rest of the U.S. population.

Bond suggested that companies like Microsoft see more visas as a way to recruit cutting-edge talent, but there are IT workers in the U.S. looking for work.

Gates doesn’t encounter a lot of unemployed IT workers, he said. “I think there must be a categorization problem,” Gates added. “Anybody who’s got some computer science skills is not looking for work.”

Some on the panel blamed strict U.S. immigration policies following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for a lack of available IT workers, with Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman saying U.S. universities experienced a 25 percent decline in graduate applications from overseas two years ago and another 5 percent decline this past year.

Bond said the dot-com bust in 2000 may have also scared off potential computer science majors. Gates and Tilghman also focused on the U.S. kindergarten through 12th grade education system as part of the reason fewer U.S. students are interested in science and math compared with students in other nations.

“Dramatic” changes are needed in primary and secondary education, Gates said. But even if he were king for a day, Gates said he wasn’t sure what he could do to fix education because states and local school districts control schools more than the federal government does.

Gates and other panelists also called for the U.S. government to increase its spending on research and development. Bond noted that government spending on research and development has increased in the past five years during the administration of President George Bush, and funding for National Science Foundation has increased 26 percent since 2001.

Some of the Bush administration’s research funding has gone into programs like the so-called Star Wars nuclear defense shield, said

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. Bush has pushed for various tax cuts, but more money is needed for research, which is critical to the future of the U.S., Leahy said.

“We are not spending enough for research,” Leahy added. “If we can find money for Iraq and find money for other things, we can find money for research.”

Most on the panel said they are confident that the U.S. can continue to be the leading technology innovator, but other countries will continue to become more competitive. Asian countries are trying to copy the U.S. higher education system, giving their students home-grown opportunities, Bond said.

“India and China and others are becoming competitive,” Bond said. “The United States has this in common with Microsoft: When you’re number one, everybody is gunning for you.”

Related links:

Diverse skills can help IT workers avoid offshore axe

H-1B visa cap could be reached within a week

U.S. lawmakers: Worker visa program needs changes

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