jun kwon

How do recent graduates decide whether to practice in the U.S. or pursue work overseas? Considering that up to half of the students in some American architecture schools are foreign-born, their answers might depend on where they come from.

Americans seeking work abroad face significant hurdles such as laws, which differ from country to country in terms of licensing, taxation, and contracts. “We do have trade barriers,” says James Wright, AIA, a principal at PageSoutherlandPage, “[but] the U.S. Commerce Department has been providing basic business intelligence to U.S. firms and helping lobby host countries for more consistent architectural agreements and practice laws.” Wright, a member of the AIA International Committee Advisory Group, has invited representatives from the Commerce Department to address some of these issues in “Moving to an International Practice,” a session he’s co-chairing at the 2013 AIA National Convention in Denver in June.

Some of those trade barriers can also be softened with design diplomacy. Jessica Salmoiraghi, director of federal relations at the AIA, works to develop relationships with the Commerce Department for trade missions and international partnerships to help U.S. architects reduce those barriers. It’s good timing, too. India alone will spend $1 trillion on new infrastructure before 2018, but it also means that U.S.-trained Indian architects will be eager to take advantage of those opportunities. “A lot of young Indian nationals have decided to leave the U.S. and go there to practice,” Salmoiraghi says.

For many foreign nationals, the cachet of working for a U.S. firm is the ticket to a senior-level position in their home country or elsewhere. Take Jade Jiambutr: A native of Thailand, he landed a job at Handel Architects in New York after graduating last year from Tulane University. “There are so many people from different countries practicing in one place,” he says. “I felt working here would be more beneficial in the long run than going back home right away.”

But it’s getting harder to stay. After their student visas expire, graduates can work for 12 months before they need a firm to sponsor them in order to obtain a long-term H-1B visa from the State Department, which is difficult to do when jobs are scarce. Ammar Eloueini, Intl. Assoc. AIA, who was born in Beirut, graduated from Palais-Malaquais in France and Columbia University in New York, and is now a Favrot Professor of architecture at Tulane, recalls that many of his Columbia colleagues found jobs in academia and established side practices in the late 1990s and early 2000s—a path that’s not as accessible today. “It’s harder now to find a teaching job,” Eloueini says. “Other countries seem to offer greater potential than the U.S., especially given the paperwork required to work here.”

Those seeking registration, of course, must find a way to pursue IDP credits abroad. “There’s the perceptual value of an American degree and the regulatory value of an American degree,” says Michael Monti, executive director of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. “But there is no way to know how many foreign students study here to get a U.S. license, and how many are simply seeking an American education.”

Meanwhile, Salmoiraghi and 2012 AIA president Jeff Potter, FAIA, traveled to Rio de Janeiro recently to talk to architects working on the 2016 Olympic Park, which is being built on the former Brazilian grand prix track across more than 300 acres situated southwest of the city’s center. There’s also partnership potential with Brazil’s 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Russia. The task is to “figure out where the jobs are and establish the connections to make them happen,” Salmoiraghi says. —Cheryl Weber

Learn more about AIA trade missions at aia.org/advocacy.