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Space industry scrambles for workers, but can’t hire foreigners

UPDATED: Mon., Oct. 29, 2018

In this Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018, photo released by Virgin Orbit, a completed LauncherOne rocket hangs from the wing of Cosmic Girl, a special Boeing 747 aircraft that is used as the rocket's “flying launch pad,” at the Long Beach Airport in Long Beach, Calif. (Greg Robinson / Associated Press)
In this Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018, photo released by Virgin Orbit, a completed LauncherOne rocket hangs from the wing of Cosmic Girl, a special Boeing 747 aircraft that is used as the rocket's “flying launch pad,” at the Long Beach Airport in Long Beach, Calif. (Greg Robinson / Associated Press)
By Chabeli Herrera Orlando Sentinel

Glow-in-the-dark stars twinkling in his childhood bedroom and science fiction books in his lap, Shayan Shirshekar grew up like most kids fascinated by space. When he was old enough to say what he wanted to be when he was older, his answer was always immediate: an astronaut.

Like many with such aspirations, Shirshekar dreamed of a future working at NASA or a private U.S. space company. It was the gold standard, he thought, something to strive for.

There was one snag, though: Shirshekar grew up at what for him was the unlucky side of Lake Ontario, in Toronto, an hour’s drive from the U.S. border.

That distance is important when it comes to the stringent U.S. regulations that govern the space industry. It’s the roadblock to Shirshekar, 30, and other international students who come to the country to study space, only to find they’ll be hard-pressed to get jobs when they graduate.

A year and a half from graduation, despite good grades and a job at the Aldrin Space Institute, run by former astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s son Andy, Shirshekar has no job prospects.

“I was trying to follow my passion, and look where that’s led me,” Shirshekar said. “My parents ask me time and time again, ‘When are you going to get a job?’ It’s that unfortunate pressure where you have dedicated all this time, and I’ve traveled around the States in hopes of building something and no opportunity has arisen.”

Since the International Traffic in Arms Regulation, or ITAR, was enacted in 1976, classifying spacecraft and rockets as military technology, international students have been unable to get jobs in the field. Only “U.S. persons” – in other words, citizens or permanent residents – can work for NASA or major private space companies under ITAR.

The problem, though not new, is perhaps more acute now that the space industry in the U.S. – and particularly Florida’s Space Coast – is flourishing. Companies are scrambling to find qualified employees because of a national shortage in the science, technology, engineering and math fields, the kind of skills that feed the space industry.

Many of those qualified students are already at schools such as the University of Central Florida, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the Florida Institute of Technology, where Shirshekar is a doctoral candidate. Florida Tech, in particular, prides itself in a student body that is about one-third international. The school has been ranked as No.1 in the nation for its foreign student population by U.S. News and World Report for at least the past four years.

“It’s really frustrating,” said Laura Seward Forczyk, owner of space consulting firm Astrolytical and a Florida Tech grad. “These were students who came to the U.S., were trained here. So we spend the resources, the time to train people in highly educated, high in-demand fields, and then they take that and leave.”

Brain drain in the industry has happened before and with dire consequences. Most famously, rocket scientist Qian Xuesen, who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1930s to attend school, went on to become one of the founders of NASA’s famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory. His design for a winged space plane inspired the space shuttle. But in the 1950s, accused of being a communist sympathizer, he was deported to China.

He went on to become the most central figure in the rise of the Chinese space program, one of NASA’s major competitors.

For many, ITAR is considered a cornerstone of national security. It’s easy to see why. Rockets share many similarities in structure with missiles. The information on building them, down to the nuts and bolts, becomes something to be protected.

Their exports are closely monitored. It’s so highly guarded that NASA and Northrop Grumman, a local employer in space and defense, declined to comment on ITAR and foreign employment for this story.

The space industry has resisted the regulations in recent years, saying they stifle growth. In 2014 and 2017, companies successfully lobbied Congress to relax some of the rules surrounding the export of satellite technologies overseas.

Importing talent is more complicated.

Speaking at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico in 2016, SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who is South African and immigrated to the U.S. through Canada, said he’d have a more international workforce if not for ITAR restrictions.

Musk got his U.S. citizenship through an H-1B visa, one of the only ways that foreigners can work in the country. To obtain the visa, which is awarded to 85,000 workers annually, they have to be sponsored by employers.

In fiscal years 2016 and 2017, workers in the computer technology and engineering fields accounted for nearly 78 percent of all approved H-1B petitions, according to a report from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. But while the demand for employees trained in STEM fields is high, it hasn’t yet translated to a more aggressive approach by space companies to further relax ITAR regulations.

Through the office of ranking member Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla, ranking minority member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, said the committee is not aware of any efforts by space companies to lobby the administration or Congress to further loosen restrictions that would allow them to hire more foreign nationals.

But as the industry continues to grow, companies may need to re-evaluate that approach, said Phil Larson, who was a space policy adviser to President Barack Obama.

“It’s great to see the boom of launches and landing and manufacturing happening on the Space Coast,” Larson said. “(It’s) ripe for that industry to continue to grow and it’s an exciting time, so it will be important to make sure the right policies are in place so the right people can get in these positions.”

Foreign students like Shirshekar have few options.

He could go into Florida Tech’s Optional Practical Training program after graduation, said Jackie Lingner, director of international student and scholar services at Florida Tech, but not one of the about 600 students currently in the program is employed in a space-related company.

He could leave the field altogether while he tries to get his green card, and then wait at least another five years for U.S. citizenship.

He could marry an American or hope to get one of the H-1B visas.

But Dona Gaynor, director for career management services at Florida Tech, said some companies choose, as a matter of policy, not to sponsor students. H-1B visa sponsorship could cost a company several thousand dollars.

Seward Forczyk, who has worked with several international students in the predicament, said she worries that “by limiting our diversity, we are actually limiting our ability to lead.”

“The students want to stay here because the United States is the leader in space,” she said. “It’s the American dream, right? That’s the ideal we strive for – that people can come here and make it.”

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