With airline after airline closing in South Africa, local pilots are looking to other countries for employment, and the US has jobs aplenty on offer.
Stefano Migliore, Managing Partner of the South African office of multinational law firm Harvey Law Group (HLG), says that South African pilots who have lost their jobs, now have a greater chance of getting a green card than ever before. “The US is welcoming pilots of all nationalities right now. Through our interpretation of the US National Interest Waiver (NIW) program, Harvey Law Group is assisting pilots to access an unconditional green card, with permanent residency status for 10 years, which includes their dependents.”
The NIW program dispenses with the usual requirements of a job offer and the ability to demonstrate that applicants are not taking jobs that Americans could fill. “Pilots need to know how the system can work for them,” says Migliore.
The NIW visa is based on merit and is designed to find pilots who meet exceptional ability criteria; hence no quota, lottery or time limit for applications. NIW also has flexible education requirements, so pilots who don’t have degrees or diplomas can still be eligible. Unlike other visas, pilots on this program are not dependent on a prior job offer and can live and work anywhere they like in the US once they obtain access.
All that aside, obtaining the NIW visa is a 12–18-month process that requires careful application, Migliore cautions. “Pilots often don’t recognise the aspects of their professional history and training that would be considered above average by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). We do. We know the process very well and how to interpret the US requirements to create a winning application.” He adds that HLG, in 2022 alone, has obtained a good number of approvals from the USCIS, with an average processing time of four to five months confirming that foreign pilots are eligible for the NIW program.
Pilots on the program need to meet only three of the usual seven immigration criteria, all of which are surprisingly accessible. They include recognition of achievements and significant contributions to the industry, evidence of special or noteworthy training and/or experience, and a minimum of 10 years full-time experience as a pilot.
This remarkable open-mindedness to pilots by USCIS reflects the urgent need for qualified pilots in the US right now. As reported by management consultancy firm Oliver Wyman, securing a pipeline of new pilots has been a primary concern for airlines worldwide over the past few years. Their poll of flight operations leaders in 2019 highlighted that a shortage of qualified pilots was a critical risk to the industry.
In the US, the causes for this shortage include an ageing workforce facing mandatory retirement and not being replaced by younger pilots, often due to the cost of training and other barriers to entry. There are also fewer military pilots moving into commercial airlines.
“There are many exceptional pilots in South Africa right now who are be looking beyond our borders to find employment,” says Migliore.
“This is the perfect time for them to apply to the US where they stand a better chance than ever to help to meet the demand for air travel and fuel future growth of the aviation industry, and we can help them get there.”