Working in the U.S. aerospace industry as a foreign national

11 February 2020

Working as a foreign national in the US. aerospace industry is tricky. You are up against ITAR and EAR regulations, which are a major headache for employers. But it is doable, especially if you work in research. Here is my trajectory. Like all others, this post was born in reply to a foreign national undergrad’s e-mail.

JPL. Shot on Portra 400.

ITAR and EAR and EAR-99, oh my!

What foreign nationals are up against are ITAR and EAR regulations.

EAR regulations (managed by the Dept. of Commerce) classify products that are economically sensitive or otherwise strategic to the US’s economic policy; ITAR regulations (managed by the Dept. of State) further classify products and projects that are militarily sensitive.

Just about anything commercially relevant in the aerospace world is at the very least EAR; most fun applications (i.e., things that actually fly) are also ITAR.

Giving technical information about an EAR or ITAR project to a foreign national is an “export event”. This includes a FN working on a project for a U.S. company, within the U.S. So, a company who wishes to employ a FN to work on an EAR project needs to apply for an export license from the Dept. of Commerce (which takes 1-2 months) and go through a bunch of red tape. My US colleagues had to keep detailed notes of every technical discussion I had with them (including chatting at the water cooler or over lunch) to stay in compliance with EAR!

For a FN to work on an ITAR project, a license from the Department of State is required, which can take north of six months, and the paperwork requirements are even more stringent. Each project requires a new license, so your mobility between projects is also severely limited. The bottom line is, hiring a FN is (by design) a pain, and most companies only do it if there is nobody else who can do the job.

The Research Shortcut

This said, it is entirely possible to build a career in aerospace even if we were born on the wrong side of the border.

One way to steer clear of ITAR (and, to some extent, EAR) is to stay in the research world. ITAR are typically attached to a physical product (a satellite, a rover, etc.): if you work in an entity that does not produce such things (say, a university or, to some extent, a national lab), you can steer clear of those. For instance, many universities (including my alma mater, Stanford) categorically do no ITAR/EAR work - as a student, you will always have access to all projects. At JPL, we have a number of foreign interns (although pivoting to staff is trickier).

A second way is to work in an aerospace-adjacent field. For instance, my wife has a M.Sc. in mechanical and aerospace engineering with a focus on CFD, and she spent several years at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab working on CFD code. Since the code is not specifically for aerospace applications, she was largely not subject to this ITAR/EAR madness.

Another way to get around this is to make yourself really indispensable to a company. This typically means that you have knowledge that nobody else does, which makes you worth the headache and the uncertainty of applying for an export license. You’d probably want to be the only person for the job (and not only the best person): for instance, having a Ph.D. does help.

You will want a Green Card

Ultimately, to stay in the aerospace industry long term, you will want to get a green card, which makes you a “U.S. person” and therefore exempt from all ITAR/EAR stuff.

A nice advantage of staying in research (and ideally getting a Ph.D.) is that, with a Ph.D. and some publications, it is not too hard or lengthy to get a green card. If you are not Indian or Chinese, you can apply for an “EB-2 National Interest Waiver” green card, which requires you to prove that it is in the “national interest” for you to stay in the U.S. (if you are Indian or Chinese, there are some stupid country-specific quotas that prevent you from going this route, although other visas are available). It is quite doable for a Ph.D. graduate with a few publications (there is no hard number, but >30/50 independent citations should be a comfortable start), and it takes about 1 year to get from the moment you apply.

The EB-2 NIW is not the only way to get a green card; however, most other ways require you to either marry a U.S. citizen or get your employer to sponsor you (which requires you to be worth the headache for the employer). With a Ph.D., you can (i) be the only person for the job and (ii) have a clear path to a green card, which will help assuage the concerns of a hiring manager. This is the route that both my advisor and I ended up following: I submitted my paperwork in August 2018 and was approved in July 2019.

Note that, if you go in the defense world, you may also need security clearances to work on certain projects. To the best of my knowledge, it is borderline impossible for a green card holder (let alone a foreign national) to receive a clearance above Secret (and even the Secret clearance is a huge pain). I have no experience with this, however.

Also, employees of all NASA centers except for JPL are civil servants, so they have to be U.S. citizens. JPL is special, because we are technically not NASA employees but Caltech employees. To work at other centers, you are typically employed by a contractor, very often USRA. So you’d want to look for jobs with USRA, not the NASA center directly.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is:

  1. As a FN, you will be a headache to an employer, so you want to make yourself the only person for the job.
  2. the route that I took was to get a Ph.D., use that to make myself indispensable, stay in research to keep things simple (also, I really like research) and get a green card ASAP.

I certainly do not advocate for getting a Ph.D. to stay in aerospace in the U.S. But, if you are considering a Ph.D., you should be aware that it will make it comparatively easy to work in aerospace, whereas a B.Sc. would be much trickier. (if you are considering a Ph.D., you may also want to read this post).

As a final note to this long rambling, there exist companies (especially startups) that may be willing to sponsor an export license for you with a B.Sc. if you have an existing connection. For instance, a buddy of mine was hired at Planet with his B.Sc. But he knew the founders well and he was a very early employee. So that route is also narrow.

I hope this information is useful. Again, it is highly feasible to build a career in aerospace as a FN. It is tricky; but it is very much worth the time and headache, in my view.