Business Data Diversity

Visa Data Shows Billion-Dollar Tech Startups Pay Premium Salaries For Tech Talent

Even in the case of publicly-traded companies, salaries are only typically disclosed for top executives. Privately-held companies are not compelled to disclose salary information to the public, because the general public can’t invest in private companies.

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As some of the most successful private tech companies go public, many investors will pay a premium for their shares. Some of them extract premium prices for their software services. In the case of employee salaries, the biggest billion-dollar startup pay above-market rate, especially for technical roles.

Here, we take a look at employee salaries at billion-dollar tech “unicorns” through the lens of H-1B visa applications by skilled foreign workers seeking jobs at these companies. Through open data sources, we obtained program performance records and analyze it below. If you want to get right to the salary details, skip the next section, where we explain the nature of the data we’re looking at.

Sourcing Salary Data

Since companies aren’t typically willing to open their payroll records to inquiring journalists, we’re using another source of salary data.

The Office of Foreign Labor Certification (OFLC) maintains and discloses records and results of work visa applications by people who are not citizens of the U.S.. The OFLC is part of the Employment & Training Administration within the U.S. Department of Labor. These are public records and are made available through a data portal on the OFLC’s website.

Specifically, we’re focusing on the H-1B and closely-related visa programs for citizens of Australia, Chile, and Singapore.1

According to the OFLC, the H-1B program “allows employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in the U.S. on a nonimmigrant basis in specialty occupations or as fashion models of distinguished merit and ability.”2 Most are granted for technical roles.

Current federal rules limit H-1B issuance to 65,000 visas per year, plus an additional 20,000 visas under H-1B’s “advanced degree exemption.” Demand for these visas far outpaces a legally-capped supply.3

This disclosure data contains information about salary levels offered by companies for specific job candidates as well as the prevailing wage for those roles. The “prevailing wage,” according to the OFLC, “is defined as the average wage paid to similarly employed workers in a specific occupation in the area of intended employment.”

With this information, we can compare how much tech companies pay their employees on H-1B visas against market averages.

H-1B And Friends: The Tech-Focused Visas

According to summary statistics for all H-1B, H-1B1, and E-3 visa applications from FY 2018 (Oct. 1, 2017 through Sept. 30, 2018), 50.1 percent of certified applicants were slated to take jobs in one of the four following categories4:

  • Software Developers, Applications: 20.5 percent
  • Computer Systems Analysts: 15.9 percent
  • Computer Occupations, All Other: 9.5 percent
  • Computer Programmers: 4.2 percent

And that doesn’t include numbers from adjacent categories like systems architects, software engineering managers, etc.5 Suffice it to say that H-1B visas are typically tech-focused.6

Unicorns With The Most Recently Certified Foreign Skilled Workers

Here are the companies we’ll be analyzing. From a combined set of H-1B and related visa data (over 440 Mb of uncompressed CSVs) representing cases reviewed between Oct. 1, 2017 and Dec. 31, 2018, we extracted records for a selection of the ten highest-funded U.S-based privately-held tech companies valued at $1 billion or more in its latest round of private-market funding.

Below, we charted the counts of recently-certified H-1B, H-1B1, and E-3 visa-holding skilled foreign workers which were slated to start jobs in either 2018 or 2019.

Among the current cohort of billion-dollar private tech companies, Uber is far and away the biggest hirer of skilled foreign workers. This being said, even though Uber is one of the most successful startups (at least in terms of fundraising and valuation; profitability is another story) it didn’t even crack the top 50 U.S. employers of skilled foreign workers. In other words, startups don’t tend to hire a lot of skilled foreign workers, as compared to more established corporations.

Companies with large national security contracts, like Palantir, tend to hire fewer skilled foreign workers. And in the case of rocket developer SpaceX, because its intellectual property could be used to manufacture missiles or further geopolitical adversaries’ strategic space programs, it’s subject to U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which place additional restrictions on hiring non-citizen workers.

Salaries For Tech & Business Roles At Unicorn Startups

A common complaint about the H-1B visa program is that companies use it “to import cheap labor.” (Scare quotes intentional.) Whether that’s true or not is for others to debate.

In theory, it shouldn’t be. Employers are obligated to pay skilled foreign workers at least the prevailing wage. 7 Several government offices calculate and provide prevailing wage data. 8

In the OFLC data, the wage being offered by a company is sometimes expressed as a range. The low end of that range sometimes equals the prevailing wage (e.g. the least amount the company is legally obligated to pay in salary). For our analysis, we took an average of the lower salary value in the range. This is the most conservative way to measure the salary gap between unicorns’ employees and their location and industry-matched peers. It’s likely that companies which list a salary range for the job actually pay more than the lowest number listed, meaning that in reality the salary gap is potentially larger than what’s displayed above.

Below, we plot an average of the lower end of the listed salary range paid to skilled foreign workers, alongside the average prevailing wage, in different occupational categories, as classified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) system. The data below represents certified applications with job start dates in either 2018 or 2019. It’s sorted by average salaries paid by our basket of unicorns.

For the sake of getting larger sample sizes, we selected from among the most hired-for technical and business categories.

Across all these categories, unicorns tend to pay salary premiums to skilled foreign workers. Our ten top-funded unicorns hired across more than fifty SOC occupation categories, ranging from “Economists” and “Cost Estimators” to “Statisticians” and “Graphic Designers.” The average salary offered by unicorns for jobs in many of these SOC categories was higher than the prevailing wage.

It Pays To Work For Big Tech Startups

Given what we’ve learned about how much top-funded unicorns pay skilled foreign workers, it’s safe to infer that top-funded unicorns pay U.S. citizens more than the average company would pay for similar work.

Keep in mind, we’re talking only about salaries here, which doesn’t include income or capital gains (or losses) from stock options packages, or the financial savings conferred by employer-subsidized health insurance.

Big tech startups pay well. Most offer excellent benefits. Play your cards right and the pre-IPO equity alone could pay for most of a decent condo in San Francisco or New York, or acres of land anywhere else.

This being said, startup stock is a lottery ticket; it’s salary that pays the bills.

Illustration: Li-Anne Dias


  1. A couple of related visa programs are also included in the OFLC’s disclosure data. The H-1B1 program allots 5,400 spots to skilled workers from Singapore, and 1,400 spots to people from Chile, in accordance with free trade agreements with those countries. Additionally, the U.S.’s E-3 program grants visas to up to 10,500 Australian nationals “seeking temporary work in specialty occupations.” Our data from the OFLC does not include data from O-1, L-1 or other visa programs besides H-1B, H-1B1, and E-3.

  2. By the OFLC’s definition, a “specialty occupation” is one that requires at least a bachelor’s degree (or an equivalent) to perform. These visas are most often granted to individuals in technical roles.

  3. A point of tension within the visa system is between the Department of Labor, which is tasked with certifying applications that come in, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. It’s USCIS that actually issues the visas, and is bound to the cap of 85,000 H-1B visas. The result is that the Department of Labor certifies more than twice the number of workers who end up receiving H-1B and related visas.

  4. These categories are defined by the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) system, a federal statistical standard developed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  5. Some of those same job titles are classified in other occupational categories, which indicates that SOC classifications are assigned by the nature of the company and the work, rather than simply by job title.

  6. The OFLC’s data lists applicants’ prospective job titles, which shows the diversity of roles within each occupational category. For example, job titles ranging from “QA Engineer” and “Software Engineer” to “Technical Program Manager” and “Test Operations Engineer” got lumped into the SOC’s “Software Developers, Applications” category.

  7. From the OFLC website: “The requirement to pay prevailing wages as a minimum is true of most employment based visa programs involving the Department of Labor. In addition, the H-1B, H-1B1, and E-3 programs require the employer to pay the prevailing wage or the actual wage paid by the employer to workers with similar skills and qualifications, whichever is higher.”

  8. Information can be obtained through the National Prevailing Wage Center, the Foreign Labor Certification Data Center’s Online Wage Library, and a few other qualifying sources.

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