We’ve written several articles recently about why you should consider working overseas. So far, we’ve focused on how American engineers can find work abroad, but now we’re going to switch focus and look at opportunities for foreign engineers to find work in the USA.
Are There Engineering Jobs in America for Immigrants?
As the economy strengthens, American companies are finding renewed demand for skilled workers. STEM graduates (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are among the most sought after. “The main areas we see employers looking for are electrical and computer engineering,” says Kathy Prem, Associate Director of the Engineering Career Services department of the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
According to Jim Nesmith, Foreign National Program Coordinator at Los Alamos National Laboratory, foreign scientists and engineers are central to the work they do there. “We want the best and brightest, wherever they’re from. We do award-winning research, and our people are among the most influential in the world. Our scientific community has a large contingent of foreign nationals, who are phenomenal people. What they bring to our work is incredible and keeps us at the forefront of science. We need them. Look at the demographics: 60% of the people getting PhD’s in STEM subjects in US universities are foreign. We want those stellar people here.”
The American Immigration Council notes there are many unfilled STEM jobs — especially in growth areas like Silicon Valley and San Diego. “The U.S. does in fact face significant challenges in meeting the growing needs of our expanding knowledge-based economy,” they argue. A recent report by Jonathan Rothwell and Neil Ruiz supports this, noting that foreign workers can earn around 10% more than American workers with the same qualifications and experience. “This suggests that they provide hard-to-find skills,” says Rothwell. That alone is a great incentive to consider engineering jobs in America.
Despite concerns about bringing immigrants into the country, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue points out that bringing foreign engineers to America helps the economy. “If we don’t keep the skilled people in this country after they are educated in our universities and our institutions, companies have a simple choice. If we can’t get them here and they go somewhere else, we have to send the work to where they are.”
Not only that, but immigrants are often job creators. The Information Technology Industry Council notes that “every foreign-born student who graduates from a U.S. university with an advanced degree and stays to work in STEM has been shown to create on average 2.62 jobs for American workers—often because they help lead in innovation, research, and development.”
There are several different ways you can legally obtain engineering jobs in America, depending on your nationality and your intentions.
The H1-B visa is a 3 to 6 year work permit for skilled workers who do not intend to remain in the country. The US currently has an annual limit of 65,000 H1-B visas, although there are exemptions for some classes of highly qualified workers and some nationalities, so in practice over 130,000 were issued in the last financial year. Of these, the vast majority are given for jobs requiring high-level STEM skills. It’s tied to your job, so once your job ends, you have to leave the country. Your employer has to petition for this for you before you can start work.
- Canadians and Mexicans can apply for a TN visa, which allows them to work in the US for a limited time, while Australians can apply for an E3 visa. Like the H1-B, these are tied to your job.
- If you intend to become a permanent resident, you can apply for a Green Card. This allows you to remain in the US regardless of your current employment.
However, all the programs are massively over-subscribed, and there’s no guarantee that a visa will be granted.
The easiest route for many engineers will be to start by studying in the US. There’s a strong preference for engineers with an American degree, especially at Masters’ level. There are two programs designed specifically to help overseas students on F1 visas.
- Optional Practical Training (OPT): you can take up temporary employment for up to 29 months in work relating to your major area of study.
- Curricular Practical Training (CPT): you can do up to 12 months of work prior to completing your degree as part of your program of study. If you do more than 12 months of CPT, you are ineligible for OPT.
“You don’t need to do OPT or CPT,” says Prem. “They can help, but they’re not required. What will really benefit you is to intern with an American company while you’re here. Show them what you can do, and get them interested in sponsoring your visa before you even graduate.”
If you’ve graduated from an American university, you won’t have a problem with your qualifications, but what if you studied in your home country? As we pointed out previously in this series, that’s often less of a problem than you might think.
The 1989 Washington Accord sets out the benchmarks for internationally recognized engineering degree programs and other qualifications. If your degree is from any of these signatory countries, it’ll be recognized by the USA: Australia, Canada, Tai Pei, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Turkey, UK, Bangladesh, China, Pakistan, Peru, and the Philippines.
Outside that, you’ll need to contact the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) who will be able to advise whether your qualifications will be accepted. The cost is $400, and you’ll need to submit transcripts of your coursework, degree certificates, and course descriptions.
Advice for Students
“Find someone who’s working in your field and get to know them,” advises Nesmith. “Cold calling through the job boards can work, but it’s not as good as having a contact already at the lab. We collaborate with institutions all over the world, and we’re looking for people who’ve already proved themselves to be among the best. We look at your publications and who you’ve worked with. So make yourself stand out in your field, make those friends in the right places, and if you have the skills we need, we’ll reach out to you.”
“You’ll always have to prove yourself better than the Americans, so you’ll have to learn to market yourself,” Prem emphasizes. “Employers will be looking for great communication and language skills, so that’s another challenge you’ll need to face.”
Nesmith agrees. “We look for people who are really motivated. In the early 90s, after the Cold War, I saw Russian scientists coming over here with literally nothing but the clothes on their backs, and I watched them build new lives and do incredible work. Those are the kind of people we want.”
Don’t neglect your social skills as well as your academic skills. “Our foreign national community is really dynamic,” says Nesmith with pride. “They enrich the lives of our whole town, even outside the lab. That’s what’s made Los Alamos the best small town in the entire United States. That image of nerdy scientists in lab coats – it’s just not true. They volunteer, they take part in social events, and they’re just wonderful people to be around.”
Featured Image Credit: Westminster College (Fulton, MO)