Hiring Foreign Workers
- The space industry would love to hire more foreign workers. Desire is not the problem!
- The first blocker is a large set of laws known as ITAR/EAR and the bureaucracy involved in getting exceptions.
- The second blocker is most (but not all) foreign workers need a visa, which is a separate process.
- The academic ecosystem gives you the best chance of finding your path to the U.S. space industry.
- Small businesses are your next best option because they're less likely to introduce sensitive materials to foreign workers.
- Unfortunately, this can be an expensive process. You might consider a few options as stepping stones or even as an awesome career.
First things first: Never forget that companies would LOVE to hire you. Don’t ever doubt that there are managers who wish they could tap into your passion and motivation. So, while one of your tasks is to show you’d be a good employee, your other task is to make it as easy as possible for companies to grab your hand and pull you over.
Side note: this article covers working in the U.S. space industry. Perhaps a reader has insights about working in other countries?
One more side note: There’s an irony in that the U.S. is so strict about sharing space technology that US companies claim they lose billions of dollars in sales. Other countries have been able to step into the gaps and grow themselves at the U.S. industry’s expense. One of the best ways to work in the space industry may not be to work in the U.S. at all.
So What’s the Problem?
The easy answer people give is “ITAR”. Sometimes you’ll also hear “EAR”. Let’s talk about what’s going on beyond the buzzwords.
First, ITAR stands for “International Traffic in Arms” and EAR stands for “Export Administration Regulations”. And they’re not a couple of rules but a family of regulations managed by several government agencies. The figure below diagrams the cascade of laws.
The Arms Export Control Act of 1976 mandated a “Code of Foreign Relations”. There are thousands of codes (rules) covering everything from farming to space lasers. You can read all of them here: https://www.ecfr.gov/
The two main sections (called Titles) that apply most often to the space industry are Title 15 and Title 22. And buried in subtitles and chapters and subchapters are the Export Administration Regulations (EAR) and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). And, then, buried with ITAR is Part 121, which lists all the things that the government doesn’t want other countries to learn about.
On that list are things like detectors, explosives, and weapons. And, most important to foreign workers, there are statements that say the hardware can’t leave the country and neither can the information to make them. And that’s the part that makes it hard for companies to hire foreign workers.
If it was just laws then that would be hard enough for companies. However, the laws are set up so that four government agencies are involved with reviewing, approving, and enforcing things, which creates a tangle of responsibilities:
So companies can file for exemptions but it takes serious amounts of time and money to wind through the system. It once took me six months to get approval to talk with a foreign vendor to buy something and import it to the U.S. because there was a risk the foreign company could learn too much about the purely scientific instrument my team was designing.
Getting a Visa
The ITAR/EAR licenses companies need to hire you are discussed more below. Let's jump over to the second challenge, though: getting a visa. This can sometimes be discouraging but remember that lots of foreign nationals have been able to work in the U.S. space industry so, even though it’s challenging, there are pathways.
"Temporary" Visa Options
Temporary visas are meant for people who intend to work in the US for a few years and go home. But can apply for extensions that can keep you in the US for many years. And there are paths to converting to a permanent visa or Green Card.
But note! The US government sometimes doesn't like it when you say you don't intend to apply for citizenship and then you do it anyway. You can still apply for a Green Card or other permanent route but the government may set hard restrictions on you and it's within their power to cancel what you have and ask you to leave the country.
Bottom line: Keep doing your research and consider talking with an attorney if you're considering a temporary visa as a way to earn permanent status.
The F-1 Student Visa Program
Foreign individuals can apply to attend undergraduate and/or graduate school in the United States through the F-1 program. You’ll be allowed to go to any accredited university or college and take all the courses. There are some important rules, though:
- You can’t work except under special circumstances
- You have to promise you’ll go home once you’ve graduated
Those two rules seem like they’d be a dead-end for you but there are a couple of notes. First, if your degree is related to science or engineering then you can apply for a two-year extension to do paid training at approved organizations. Most universities have a person who specializes in linking you with the programs.
Second, you can set yourself up for success by being a great student. Try to make friends with other students and don’t just hang out with people from your country. Get involved in science and engineering clubs that build airplanes, rockets, and race cars. (This is good advice for any student… your resume looks much better when you volunteer at these clubs.)
Even though you’ll have to go home at the end of the F-1 student visa, you can build the networks of people you’ll need when you apply to other visa programs. If people know you’re passionate, work hard, are good at supporting teams, and have a rare skill set, then they’re more likely to sponsor you.
To recap: If you get accepted to a US college or university, do everything you can to come over. Then be a great student and network and volunteer as best you can.
The O-1 Visa Program
The O-1 is a great option. The license allows you to stay in the US for three years as a temporary worker and you can extend the visa for one year at a time indefinitely. This can keep you in the US for as long as you work at the company that sponsored you. And, unlike the H-1B, this doesn't have a lottery system or any annual caps.
To qualify for this visa, you must demonstrate that you have "a level of expertise indicating you are one of a small percentage of people who have risen to the very top of your field". In practice, this means you need evidence such as letters of recommendation from people saying you're an expert in space industry topics. Writing landmark papers, editing technical journals, contributing to conferences, and generally being known as one of the best in your field in your country are the things they'll look for. Since there aren't a lot of aerospace engineers in many countries, it may not take much to be considered "among the best".
However! You cannot apply for this visa on your own. A company must sponsor you. This means that, while you may be "the best" in your country, you have to prove to the company that you're exceptional relative to their team, too.
It can take several months to a year for a company to get approval to hire you. As soon as the permission comes, though, you can move to the US and start working. When you stop working for the sponsor company, your visa is canceled and you'll have to move out of the US (unless you're hired by another sponsoring company).
Note: Unlike some temporary visas, you don't have to prove you have a place to live in your home country with the O-1. And applying for permanent residency doesn't automatically cancel your O-1 visa either. The rules seem to allow "essentially" dual-intent, especially for critical skills. But be sure to talk with a lawyer about this because the government could decide to reverse course.
To recap: If you can prove you have exceptional skills and you don't intend to stay permanently, this can be a fairly easy visa to earn. And it may be a good temporary-to-permanent path. A sponsoring company must file for you and it can take several months but there's no lottery like some of the other options. And once you're in the US, even if you're "temporary", you can stay in the country for many years.
The TN Visa Program for Canadians and Mexicans
If you are a Canadian or Mexican national and you have at least a Bachelor's degree in engineering, this is an easy visa to earn. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) created the TN classification for professionals in many fields, including engineering. Having this visa means you can work in any US company that sponsors you. You're allowed to stay for three years and you can qualify for extensions.
Like other visas, you must prove to the government that you have a job already. However, the bar is much lower here than for other visas and you simply need a letter from the company showing your job offer and details. Canadians can just about walk up to the border with a few forms and be allowed into the country a few minutes later. Mexicans need to file for a visa but the fees and wait times are much lower than the other options.
Note: The government is more serious about this not being a path to permanent residency than they are with the O-1. If you apply for the TN program saying you intend to go home and then you apply for a Green Card and permanent citizen status, they may block new TN applications or renewals for the one you have. You can still apply for permanent status but they may set hard restrictions and may end up canceling your visa.
To recap: If you are a Canadian or Mexican and you have a job offer, this is the easiest way to earn a visa.
The E-3 Visa Program for Australians
If you are Australian and intend to be a temporary worker, you can earn the E-3 "Certain Specialty Occupation Professionals from Australia" visa. This is one of the best and most permissive "temporary" visas available. Not only can you work in the US, but your spouse can too. And you can switch jobs as long as your new employer fills out the form.
The visa is good for two years, which is less than the three years most visas give you. But you can extend it indefinitely in two-year increments, whereas other visas increment in one-year periods.
Like other visas, you need to demonstrate that you're educated and that a company has given you a job offer. Note that you can already be in the US on an F-1 or other visa program and transfer over to the E-3 program. So this is a great option if you've gone to school in the US, graduated, and you want to stay and work without leaving.
Finally, there is a cap on the number of Australians that can earn one of these each year. However, the cap is set at 10,500 and it has rarely if ever been reached so it's likely you won't have any problems.
Note: Like the TN visa, the government does not like it when you apply for the E-3 program saying you don't intend to stay permanently and then you apply for a Green Card and permanent citizen status. They want you to apply for the H-1B visa if you intend to apply for citizenship.
To recap: If you're Australian, this is one of the best visas available.
"Permanent" Visa Options
These visas are tough to get but they put you on the path to US citizenship. Earning any of these will allow you to work at any sponsoring US Space company. Two of these categories also let you enter the US without a job offer: the EB-1 "Extraordinary" classification and the EB-2 "National Interest Waiver".
The H-1B Program
If you have a Bachelor’s degree and you can find a company to sponsor you, you can apply for the H-1B program, which lets you work in the U.S. for three years. At the end of that time, you can apply for a three-year extension. And, after the six years, there are ways to extend your stay one year at a time.
Your first step is to find an employer who will sponsor you. This gets much easier if you already know people. For instance, from being a great student while on an F-1 Student Visa. You can also be attractive to companies if you are a very good engineer in a special discipline. For instance, if you’re an expert at thermal engineering, structural analysis, material engineering, or lasers then companies are likely interested in hiring you because there are not enough experts here.
Many people who earn an H-1B have to go through a lottery. If you have a Bachelor’s degree then you get one chance at having your name drawn in the once-per-year lottery. If you have a Master’s or Doctorate degree, you get two chances at having your name drawn in the lottery. So if you’ve been unlucky with having your name drawn, you can increase your chances by continuing your education to earn a Master’s or a Doctorate (which will also make you more attractive to employers).
Importantly, there are lottery exemptions for truly exceptional people who work at some types of companies. These are the "EB" categories, described below. For instance, universities and some non-profits can hire people directly as H-1B employees without a lottery. These programs will say in their announcements that they’re willing to sponsor you. And, as we keep saying, if you’re a great F-1 student then you’re likely to find these opportunities through your university. There are also foreign universities that will announce opportunities through partner universities in the U.S. that you can apply to.
Note, though, that defense-oriented companies will not usually hire H-1B visa workers because you’re not classified as a permanent U.S. resident and they'd have to get an export control license. However, there are companies that don’t work on defense projects that will hire you. Your best bet is to find small to medium-sized companies that focus on commercial space systems or only support NASA.
To Recap: Be an expert in your engineering field and the H-1B program can help you get hired in the United States. Your easiest path is likely through a University that can bring you in without having to rely on a lottery.
The EB Classifications
These are a cascade of "Employment-Based" (EB) visas under the H-1B visa, starting with EB-1 "Extraordinary" down to EB-5, which covers certain types of investors. For engineers and other skilled workers, though, your classification probably falls between the EB-1 and EB-3 levels. Of the approximately 140,000 visas given out each year, priority is given to EB-1, then EB-2, then EB-3, so you want to try to qualify for EB-1 if you can. And each level has different qualifications and restrictions, too.
If you can earn the EB-1 "Extraordinary Ability", you've done something incredible like winning a Nobel Prize in physics or a Gold medal in skiing. Or you meet three of the ten requirements they list (link below). If you're in this elite group, you don't have to have a job offer, you only need to show that you intend to keep working in your field.
Also in the EB-1 category are "Outstanding Professors and Researchers". You only have to qualify for two of six options (but they're things like writing a textbook and winning a major prize for outstanding achievement). Still, many professors with a few years of experience are likely to qualify.
The EB-2 category is for people with advanced degrees or an undergraduate degree with extensive experience in the field. You can also qualify if you demonstrate exceptional ability by meeting three of seven criteria. There are two application routes related to having an employer submit paperwork and a third route called a "National Interest Waiver" that you can submit on your own. If you qualify, you can enter the US with the intention to become a US citizen without having a job offer. The three requirements for this are:
- Your proposed endeavor has both substantial merit and national importance.
- You are well-positioned to advance the proposed endeavor.
- On balance, it would be beneficial to the United States to waive the requirements of a job offer, and thus the labor certification.
People who have the education and experience to do well in aerospace and other space-industry fields can meet all three requirements. In fact, many space-industry workers have gone this route and it could be a good path for you, too.
And the EB-3 category is for skilled workers with undergraduate degrees. Plenty of people come over on EB-3 visas so don't abandon hope if this is where you fall. (But consider putting in the effort to get to higher classifications.)
To Recap: The H-1B program has different levels for people who have job offers. Your odds of being accepted are higher if you demonstrate exceptional credentials. If you qualify for the EB-1 "Exceptional" or EB-2 "National Interest Waiver" categories, you can enter the US without a job offer.
The Green Card Program
This program will make you a permanent U.S. resident which means you can work at many more space companies since they don't have to have an export license. And you’re able to start your own company. However, getting a green card isn’t easy… some people have to wait decades to be accepted.
But there’s good news for the talented scientists and engineers: If you qualify for the EB-1, EB-2, or perhaps the EB-3 categories, those wait times are much shorter. In some cases, you can get your green card in a few months. As before, the group you want to be a part of is the EB-1 category reserved for people with “extraordinary” skills.
To Recap: You have to be exceptional to qualify for a “fast” Green Card but it gives you the best status. Being a University professor or researcher is a common way people earn their Green Card.
Becoming a U.S. Citizen
This is difficult to do in a timely way but, of course, gives you the ability to work at any U.S. space company. You’ll need to first earn a Green Card and keep it in good standing for a few years. You can accelerate things a bit by serving in the military or being married to a U.S. citizen. However, wait times are often five years or more unless you happen to serve in the military during a war.
To Recap: This lets you work at any company but you’ll have to go through many steps before you achieve this.
The ITAR/EAR Issue
Even with a visa, companies cannot let you work on anything that is covered by ITAR/EAR without having a separate license to do so. This is because you learning about things is equal to "Export" since you can leave and take the knowledge with you. So space companies have to do a few things:
1. File for an export license for projects so they can hire foreign workers
2. Find foreign workers
3. Sponsor a permanent or temporary visa
These steps are what stop many companies from going through the process if they can hire locally. Not all space industry companies work on ITAR and/or EAR technologies, though. For them, they can skip the first step and go right to finding and hiring you. Let's look at what companies who do work on Export Restricted technology have to file.
A DSP-5 Filing by a US Company
The US Department of State has a Directorate called "DDTC", short for Directorate of Defense Trade Controls. They have a series of "Department of State Pro-Forma" forms grouped as "DSP". The DSP-5 "Permanent Export" form allows US companies to do several things:
1. Sell technology to other countries
2. Market services to other countries
3. Hire foreign workers to work on ITAR/EAR technologies
The third point means you can stay in your own country while working at a US space company. You can be paid, get benefits, be promoted, and be generally treated like any other employee of the company. Note that this does not authorize anyone to live in the US, you'll still need a visa or some other paperwork to be able to move in. But it does let you have access to the information and work as an employee as if you did live in the US.
Or, if you have a visa, it allows you to work on the projects in the US as long as you're an employee at the company (since they likely sponsored your visa.)
Companies must be explicit about the technology you'll have access to, where you'll operate from, and how they'll prevent you from accessing things you shouldn't see. As you might expect, the State Department isn't going to let foreign workers see everything so some companies may struggle to create the firewalls and infrastructure for special classes of employees. But other companies, especially small companies or very large companies, may find this easy to do.
When the DSP-5 is approved, the license lasts for four years and can be extended. There are additional rules about this related to visas.
One more point: when a company files the DSP-5, they can do it for a whole country instead of a few people. For instance, they could ask that they be able to hire any German or Spanish foreign national. If they're approved then they don't need to wait months to process your specific paperwork in this area, they have blanket permission to hire you already. (But you'll still need a visa to live in the US.)
To Recap: Companies interested in hiring one or many foreign nationals can file a DSP-5. Workers can stay in their country while working on approved technologies and programs.
A DSP-83 Filing by a US Company
The DSP-83 is essentially the same thing as the DPS-5 except it covers classified material. Working with classified information requires special networks and infrastructure so it's exceedingly unlikely that an individual working out of their house would be hired this way. More common would be a foreign worker working for a local defense contractor or government agency in their country that has a partnership with a US company or government agency.
Many of these options start with you having a college degree, which is not attainable for everyone. Then you've got application fees, delays, uncertainty, and more. There are a couple of alternatives worth pointing out that may be superior to working in the US space industry:
- Move to a non-US country and work in their space industry: The things that would make you attractive in the US will make you attractive anywhere. Several countries are designing rockets, big satellite constellations, and sending missions to the Moon and Mars. You may find it easier to have an exciting and satisfying career outside the U.S.
- Build the space industry in your country: More and more countries are investing in this high-growth market. They’re sponsoring companies and investing in programs to build their space industry. It could be a great time to stay where you are and become a leader and pioneer.
Many U.S. companies would love to hire you but the laws and agencies make it difficult. If you’re committed, though, there’s a good chance you’ll find a way to make it work.
The number one thing you can do is to become an expert in a special engineering field. Write papers, attend conferences, and work on graduate degrees. The second thing you need to do is to connect with as many people as you can. Find ways to show them you’re passionate and motivated. And the third thing you can do is to keep looking for opportunities to study and work at universities and colleges. If you do those things, the type of visa you'll need will become apparent over time and the sponsoring company will work with you.
And, when you do get a shot to come to the U.S., keep pushing yourself to meet new people and volunteer at clubs. You can have a lot of fun while you’re learning and improving your odds of success.
Here are some links that talk about these topics:
Laura Forczyk is a space industry coach who’s been asked these questions many times. Her article covers many of the same topics, which goes to show you that people care about your potential.
This is the main page for student visas and associated programs
There are categories of Employment-Based H-1B visas. This page lists the categories where you can find the qualifications for each level.
This is a comprehensive look at the O-1 visa. This may be a great option for you if you can demonstrate that you're "exceptional" in your field.
This PDF covers the DSP-5 notes.
This page covers the TN Visa rules for Canadian and Mexican nationals.
A brief article about the E-3 Australian visa
These are YouTube videos that talk about this topic:
This is a panel of women who have struggled through the system. They talk about their problems, including some of the psychological impacts. You might find it helpful to you on many levels.
Elon Musk came to the U.S. on an H-1B visa. He talks in this video about how SpaceX would love to hire international people but simply can’t.