A “specialty occupation” is one that requires the theoretical and practical application of a body of knowledge in professional fields and at least the attainment of a bachelor’s degree, or its equivalent, as a minimum for entry into the occupation in the United States.1
The occupation also needs to meet one or more of the following criteria:
In short, your job needs to be a professional role that requires a bachelor’s degree. Commerce, marketing, law, communications, architecture, arts, engineering, design, medicine, etc, any bachelor’s degree or higher will do.
The U.S. Government2 refers to the Occupational Outlook Handbook (Handbook) prepared by the DOL to help determine whether jobs usually require a degree. The Handbook is the government’s authoritative source on the duties and educational requirements of a wide variety of occupations in the United States.
To determine the “usual” educational requirements of a specific role, you can access the Handbook here, browse the “Occupational Groups” listed on the page, or type in the job title in the “Search Handbook” bar, hit “Go”, and select the appropriate role from the listed search results.
The Handbook will then present a summary of the position, including the “Typical Entry-level Education”. For your job to be viewed as one that “usually” requires a degree, this entry should state “Bachelor’s degree”, “Master’s degree” or “Doctoral or professional degree”.
Revisit this guy. No, no, you’ll be fine. If the Handbook doesn’t show that a degree is the typical entry-level education for your role, you just need to demonstrate that you fit one of the other “specialty occupation” criteria, namely that:
You need to submit evidence demonstrating that you fit the criteria at your visa interview. The most common way of doing this is to prepare a letter of support which provides:
You can then get your employer to review and sign the letter.
I’ve prepared a template letter of support based on the letter I prepared for my application. You can download a copy of the letter here.
This should be explained in the letter of support4, and you can really stretch this one. For example, if you’ve completed a business degree, practically anything you do professionally is related to business in some way. You’ll be working for a business, for one, so it’s pretty easy to see that your degree is relevant. Got a law degree? Try and work in that you’ll be dealing with and need to understand customer contracts and terms and conditions. Accounting or finance? Numbers, company statements, financial strategy, all relevant! Just put some thought into this one and you should be fine.
OK, let’s say that you’ve got a bachelor’s degree in finance and you’ve applied for a customer service representative role in New York. The Handbook states that the typical entry-level education of a customer service representative is a high school diploma or equivalent. The job is therefore not one that usually requires a bachelor’s degree or higher to qualify for the position, so it’s not a “specialty occupation” under that criteria.
If, however, you will be working as a customer service representative at a fin-tech startup, your letter of support should state that the company only wants to employ service representatives with specialized finance knowledge (i.e. people with bachelor’s degrees in finance, business, commerce, etc). An argument can then be made that the job is a “specialty occupation” because:
The job will also relate to your field of study, because it’s a finance-related position.
Boom – specialty occupation.
The prevailing wage for an occupation is the average wage paid to workers in that occupation in the United States. The wage is established by the DOL and is determined on a county-by-county basis. The prevailing wage for a project manager in Nassau County, New York, will therefore be different from the prevailing wage for a project manager in Polk County, Iowa.
To find the prevailing wage for your occupation, you will need to access the Foreign Labor Certification Data Center (FLC Data Center), which is an online database of prevailing wages maintained by the DOL.
Once you have accessed the database, select your state (New York) from the drop-down menu and click “Continue”.
On the next screen, select the county in which you will be working, so that you are only shown the prevailing wage information for that county. This is important because, as mentioned above, the prevailing wage data differs from county to county. For New York City, the county to select is “NEW YORK – New York-White Plains-Wayne, NY-NJ Metropolitan Division”.
You can then search your occupation by keyword or from the drop-down menu.
To select the right code, you need to understand the SOC (Standard Occupational Classification) coding system, which is the classification system used by the U.S. government to group occupations based on criteria such as the job title, positional requirements, skills, education, training, and credentials of people in those occupations. The codes are used by the government to standardize the collection and comparison of job data.
The O*NET Code Connector website, which is sponsored by the DOL, assists people in determining an appropriate SOC code for their position based on their job title, positional requirements, skills, education, training, and credentials.
The easiest way to find your SOC code is to type your proposed job title in the “Occupation Quick Search” in the top-right of the site’s homepage and hit “Enter”. That will bring up a list of SOC codes and accompanying occupation groups that the database links with your job title. The most closely aligned SOC code, based on the information the database links to your role, will be listed at the top. For example, a search for the job title “Customer Community Manager” most closely aligns with SOC code 43-4051 for the occupation group “Customer Service Representatives”.
You will need to go back to the FLC Data Center website and choose the applicable SOC code from the drop-down menu described above. That search will show you the prevailing wage salary levels for the occupation group, ranging from level 1 to level 4. Each occupation group starts out at wage level 1 (for lower paying, entry-level positions in the occupation group), and the more experience, education, special skills, and supervisory duties required by the employer, the higher the wage level will be in a given geographic area, up to level 4.
The LCA process will allow you to select any SOC code and wage level you want, but for E-3 visa purposes, if you’re going for a lower paying startup job, then ideally what you’re looking for is a SOC code that has a Level 3 or Level 4 prevailing wage that is equal to or less than your salary. This is because it is the consular officer at your visa interview who will ultimately decide whether or not you’ll be working in a specialty occupation, so to put your best foot forward you’ll want to show them an application with a SOC code and prevailing wage level that supports your argument that your job requires a bachelor’s degree-level education. Being able to use a level 3 or level 4 wage as the prevailing wage for your position, which the U.S. government views as requiring a higher education than level 1, will be helpful in that regard.
My suggestion is to do a little bit of digging through the SOC codes to see which codes can be applied to your position, what the accompanying prevailing wages are for each code, and try and find a code that both fits your position and has a level 3 or level 4 prevailing wage that is equal to or lower than your salary.
Going back to the customer service representative example from above, let’s say that the startup is tight on cash, so your job pays an annual salary of $50,000. If you type “Customer Service Representative” into the O*NET search, the best occupational fit is the “Customer Service Representatives” occupational group with SOC Code 43-4051.
If you then search for that code in the FLC Data Center, you get the following list of prevailing wages:
The Level 4 wage is ideal here. The prevailing wage for a level 4 customer service representative is $49,150 per year, so your salary of $50,000 is higher than the prevailing wage for a person in your occupation. You have also used the highest prevailing wage level, which supports your argument that the job requires a bachelor’s degree.
As an alternative, let’s say your customer service representative role will involve some sales, marketing and general business strategy work, in addition to general customer service. The role therefore doesn’t fit neatly within the customer service representative SOC code, because there are additional duties to consider. In this situation, you could also use SOC code 41-9099, for “Sales and Related Workers, All Other”.
The “All Other” SOC code classifications are used by the U.S. government for those occupations that do not adequately “fit” within one of the other SOC code groupings, so if your role straddles a number of different fields of work then the “All Other” classifications are useful. They also often come with lower prevailing wages, which is helpful if your position does not have a high salary.
To play it through, if you search for SOC code 41-9099 in the FLC Data Center, you get the following wage results:
In this case your $50,000 salary is higher than the level 3 prevailing wage, so you could use this SOC code for your visa application.
To demonstrate that you will be paid the prevailing wage, you must obtain a certified Labor Condition Application (ETA Form 9035), or LCA for short, from the DOL.
On the next page, we’ll look at the LCA in detail.