Did Gates fib about H-1B hires getting $100,000?

While in Washington last year lobbying lawmakers and cajoling journalists for looser immigration policies, did Bill Gates tell a big fat fib regarding what Microsoft pays the holders of H-1B visas?

That would appear to be the case, at least based on an analysis provided by offshoring critic Robert Oak and Ron Hira, an assistant professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Their work was first posted last week on a pair of popular political blogs, MyDD (Direct Democracy) and DailyKos. You can follow all the links via Buzzblog.

Microsoft says no to the allegation, naturally, and you can read more of the company's statement below.

On March 19, 2006, David Broder of The Washington Post reported that Gates told him Microsoft's H-1B hires start at about $100,000 a year. The key paragraph:

"As Gates said, these are highly paid, highly qualified individuals. Salaries for these jobs at Microsoft start at about $100,000 a year. Their counterparts can be hired more cheaply in China or India, he said, but Microsoft does 85 percent of its research and development work in the United States because it wants its computer scientists interacting directly with its program managers and its marketing people on its own campus."

And here's the meat of what Oak and Hira provided, based on an analysis of Green-Card applications filed by Microsoft and kept online by the government:

"Unfortunately for Bill Gates, when a corporation sponsors a green card, they must publish the actual salary along with the application. . . . Only 3.3%, or 40 employees, of the 1,202 total green card applications submitted by Microsoft had wages above $100k," Oak writes. "In fact, more applications, 8.3%, or 92 employees, were paid salaries below $60k. Most of the job titles of the 1,202 applications were Software Engineer, an entry-level job indicator. The median salary for all was $71k, well below the $100k that Bill Gates touted in his claim of a great shortage of "talent" in America (read cheap, controllable and young)."

I have been sympathetic toward backers of looser immigration policies, in general, and H-1B limits, specifically. However, central to the latter position has long been the often-repeated contention that H-1B visas go to highly specialized, highly compensated professionals who are otherwise difficult, if not impossible, to find here. If that's not the case, the argument in favor of lifting H-1B ceilings weakens considerably.

Here is the statement provided by a Microsoft spokesman to me:

"The need to attract and retain talent is vital. The positions we seek to fill are for those with the highest levels of skill available and for which there are no U.S. candidates. Competition for that talent is global and intense. As we highlighted in a letter to Congress last year, 'The H-1B program has strong wage requirements and other protections for U.S. workers. Moreover, Microsoft compensates its H-1B workers at the same high levels as U.S. workers, and at levels substantially above the government set 'prevailing wages' for each occupation (although some critics have confused the 'prevailing wage' level for what Microsoft actually pays its employees), for example: Software development engineers averaged more than $109,000 in total direct compensation in 2005. Program managers averaged over $110,000 in total direct compensation in 2005.' "

Something tells me that there is significance in the phrase "total direct compensation." Broder's description of what Gates told him was that "salaries for these jobs at Microsoft start at about $100,000 a year."

I'm not thinking those are the same thing. As for the bit about "no U.S. candidates," it is simply a lie.

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