It’s no secret that some of the largest tech companies use the H-1B visa to fill software-engineering roles. But how much are they actually paying those software engineers?
Let’s take a look at some numbers from the H1B Salary Database, which indexes the Labor Condition Application (LCA) disclosure data from the United States Department of Labor (DOL). For this walkthrough, we chose Apple, Google, and Microsoft; in a future piece, we’ll break down other firms.
Some caveats here (as some readers have helpfully pointed out): These numbers don't include the perks and payments that H-1B workers at these companies may receive in addition to their salary. For example, if they have a deferred stock award that may result in a lot of money in a few years, provided they accomplish certain project milestones, it seems unlikely that will end up as part of these calculations. When dealing with things related to H-1B salaries, we're often forced into a bit of guesswork.
Now let’s look at the “average” compensation for entry-level software engineers at those companies, courtesy of crowdsourced compensation data from levels.fyi:
Salary-wise, software engineers on the H-1B seem to be earning a bit more than “average” entry-level software engineers at those companies, which certainly makes sense—companies are only supposed to use the H-1B to secure specialized talent they can’t find within the talent pool of U.S. citizens, and presumably that kind of specialization is worth more cash. (These entry-level workers also receive compensation in the form of bonuses and stock, and at least some H-1B workers might, as well, which alters the calculus; but let's stick with "pure" salary figures for right now.)
No matter what their specialization, though, it seems like the typical H-1B software engineers at these firms make far, far less than software engineers with a ton of experience. Let’s take a look at “average” compensation for some of the most senior software engineers at these firms (also from levels.fyi):
Of course, in any analysis like this, there’s a little bit of wiggle room. Some of these most senior engineers are no doubt on the H-1B (since it's crowdsourced, levels.fyi no doubt has some H-1B data thrown into its overall "pool"). But if we take the average salary data at face value, it seems like software engineers who arrive at these big firms via H-1B are making a bit more than entry-level software engineers, and a whole lot less (on average) than the software engineers who climb to virtually the top of the heap at these companies.
This is interesting because H-1Bs are supposed to go to those technologists who have highly specialized skills that are hard to find; presumably, that specialization is worth a lot of cash. But the "average" H-1B salaries at these firms don't reflect that kind of substantial premium. It's the sort of data reinforces the arguments of H-1B critics, who insist that companies use the visa to save money, not lock down the one-of-a-kind talent they actually need. Beyond software engineers, are those on the H-1B visa making less than other technologists?
How H-1B Software Engineers Compare to 'Average' Tech Pros in Pay
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a dataset of H-1B visa applications for FY2019, displaying everything from sponsoring companies and targeted roles to projected salaries. It’s well worth checking out (although you’ll need a powerful PC, since the data comes in a huge Excel sheet), especially as it provides insights into things that many companies previously did their best to keep hidden, such as their subcontracting activity.
Via this DOL dataset, we’ve seen an imbalance between “average” and H-1B salaries. Using the dataset, we found the average H-1B salary is $89,779. But the average salary for tech pros, according to the most recent Dice Salary Survey, is $93,244; and on top of that, the Dice Salary Survey recorded the average income for software engineers at $110,989.
Even as companies continue to apply for H-1B workers, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has been systematically cracking down on the visa. For example, since President Trump’s “Buy American and Hire American” executive order (signed two years ago), the government has suspended premium processing of H-1B petitions (before resuming it), signaled an intention to kill H-4 EAD, and planned to completely change how the H-1B lottery is run. Despite those measures, however, it seems like the H-1B itself isn’t going away in the short term.
Editor's note: This article's conclusions regarding senior software engineers has been slightly updated.