International Planners: Tips on Finding a Job in the U.S.

This article is intended to convey some thoughts about the career development of foreign planners in the U.S. in light of the U.S. immigration process. While my opinions do not constitute legal advice, they are lessons learned from personal experience with immigration proceedings over the last eight years.

In writing this article, I presume that its readers are:

  1. Young professionals or planning major students who are classified under a non-immigrant status in the U.S. and intend to work in the U.S. as a planner
  2. Interested in jobs in a private or government setting. In other words, readers are not professional scholars with numerous academic publications
  3. Not married or engaged to an American citizen
  4. Not in the top five percent who possess extraordinary ability in planning and qualified for EB1

Gain Demonstrable Skills

Soft skills, such as communication and time management, are important, but certain skills carry extra weight for foreign planners. Those skills can generate tangible results that demonstrate your expertise and allow it to be effectively presented on paper.

For planners, it includes GIS analysis, graphic design, in-depth analysis of social-economic data, technical writing on complex issues, and traffic modeling, or the combination of any of those skills. Indeed, these skills are billable and marketable. But, more importantly, they help to establish a compelling case in front of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) adjudicators who decide if you are qualified for the immigration benefits that you are seeking.

However laborious, in a sense, you are only as good as what you can document in the context of immigration petition. Keep track of your projects, certifications, trainings, conference presentations, and other career events.

Understand H-1B Visa

A few core issues about H-1B visa:

  1. It allows you to work temporarily in the U.S, with a three-year limit, potentially extendable to six years.
  2. The visa has a cap each year, and your chance of getting it very likely depends on a lottery conducted by the USCIS, if your employer is not cap-exempt.
  3. You can work ONLY for the employer who is identified in your H-1B visa petition unless the employer is not in the U.S.
  4. You need to be continually employed to keep your H-1B status valid.

Find the Right Employer

Among employers who are interested in hiring you, ensure that the employer of your choice is able and willing to sponsor your H-1B visa, with an awareness of the constraints imposed by the visa. As mentioned, H-1B visa has a cap each year and, once the cap is met, ALL applicants are subject to a lottery.

One way to sidestep this obstacle, however, is to find a cap-exempt employer, such as higher education institutions and nonprofit/government research organizations. Those employers still need to file an H-1B petition for you, but the process is much less burdensome.

In the event of filing an immigration petition (not H-1B visa) through the PERM labor certificate path, your employer will need to demonstrate that there is no American citizen who is able AND willing to do your job.

Develop Expertise

Having focused expertise could place you in a position advantageous for your career and, if you are an alien worker in the U.S., for your immigration petition. In the context of planning, your expertise can be demonstrated through innovative approaches in solving problems and seizing upon opportunities, improving social well-being such as safety, sustainability, equity, and economy.

Again, your expertise and related achievements are helpful to your immigration case only when their significance is supported by evidence. That evidence includes reference letters from prestigious colleagues, media reports, academic citations, data showing factual impact, your job title, and your salary.

A note: Your expertise is more valuable when it is narrow, well defined, and on the top in its field, especially when you pursue the Green Card through the National Interest Waiver (EB2) or Extraordinary Ability (EB1).

Deal with It

On numerous occasions, immigration issues put my life in limbo. Waiting on a decision from the USCIS is not a thing I enjoy, and weathering through the process (I am still in it) is an ordeal. However, there are no life-and-death consequences.

Remember, there are asylum seekers waiting to find out if they have successfully demonstrated that they meet the qualification to be treated as refugees, so it is important to keep things in perspective.

Learn More

Get tips from planners on how to use your planning skills abroad.

Edited by Andrew Gast-Bray, AICP, CNU-A.

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Headshot of Jing Zhang.
About the Author

Jing Zhang, AICP, PTP

Jing Zhang is a senior research specialist at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health and vice chair of the International Division of the American Planning Association.

July 1, 2019

By Jing Zhang, AICP