Your Career Q&A: Making the Transition to U.S. HR

By Martin Yate Aug 30, 2016
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This week's column advises HR professionals whose experience is from outside the U.S. how to make the career transition to working in the U.S. Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.

I am a Romanian citizen married to an American, and I'm currently a permanent resident with plans for citizenship by the end of this year. Prior to leaving Romania, I was a human resources specialist at the International Airport in Bucharest. I have a master's degree in human resources, which the International Education Research Foundation found to be equivalent to a master's degree in business administration with a focus on human resources. My job responsibilities included:

  • Tracking prospective employees until the hiring process commenced.
  • Maintaining communication with the finance department regarding specific deductions for each employee in accordance with the most current state regulations.
  • Issuing documents as evidence of employment and benefits for physician visit, hospitalization and social health care.
  • Tracking employee sick leave and transmitting the information to the state care system; maintaining copies for the company so it could track sick leave for employees to make sure they didn't exceed the days provided.
  • Coping and archiving all documents I prepared.
When I left, I procured a recommendation in English from my boss, and since arriving in America, I have diligently prepared myself for a career in this country by completing the following work:

  • Enrolled in an English-as-a-second-language course, which I am still attending and have qualified at an Intermediate High Level.
  • Received certification in Microsoft Office, Word, Excel, Power Point and Outlook, as well as Google Drive.
  • Became an accounts payable and payroll specialist using Quickbooks, with certifications from Intuit.
  • Became certified in typing at 46 words per minute and in writing and speaking in a multicultural language. I can also read, speak and write in Spanish. 

In addition, I am preparing to take the SHRM-CP exam, and I have recommendations from two teachers.

I haven't worked in the three-and-a-half years since I arrived in the U.S. Given all this, what human resources position would you suggest I pursue that I would qualify for?

I understand. I'm a naturalized American, and while I have lived here longer than I lived in my birth country, I will never forget how tough the first five years were. As immigrants, it takes us longer to get traction, but once that happens, the struggle will have been worth it. You'll really begin to see why the U.S. is the finest place to live in all the world.

Now let's tackle getting that professional traction. The first thing you do is get any HR contract or temporary work you can—now, today. Current HR work shows that you are employable, and temporary and contract work is the easiest kind of work to secure. Be sure to tell the temp/contract agency that you will take anything HR-related but that you are especially interested in contract-to-permanent positions. 

I'm sorry to say that in winning your first permanent American job, you will almost certainly have to take steps backward and accept work below what your educational credentials would support. My advice would be for you to make a list of all the posted job ads where you have at least 70 percent of the skills—you need at least that percentage to get your foot in the door. Then prioritize your list based on the following criteria:

  • Which job can I make the best argument for on paper? Note that you must upgrade your resume to current U.S. standards to compete in the job market.
  • Which job can I make the best argument for in person? Always focus your answers on the needs of the job. Talking about all your other capabilities will mark you as over-qualified and a potential management problem.
  • Which job will let me be in the best position to hit the ground running?

Next, bring yourself up to speed on job hunting and turning job interviews into job offers by reading books. There is a wide selection of books available, including my own extensive Knock 'Em Dead career management series.

As an immigrant who has worked with immigrants for years, I know you can take this to the bank: The most successful are the ones who fully assimilate themselves into the U.S. way of life and its communication norms. A problem for many immigrants is nervousness, especially when American English is not their native tongue. Nerves make you speak faster than you can think in a new language, and not having correct American pronunciation can make it difficult to be understood. If you cannot be understood, then you won't be seen as competent.

Work hard at speaking American English with as little accent as possible and being able to speak colloquially, as in understanding phrases like, "You can take this to the bank." Many Eastern Europeans tend to experience difficulty using definite articles: "The man on the couch." "The woman driving the car." Check out this link for more:

My best advice to improve your speech is to stop thinking and speaking Romanian and to instead force yourself to think and speak in American English all the time. I recommend surrounding yourself with American speech at all times of day and night. Have the TV on all the time (just don't become a zombie by watching everything) and, as you travel about during the day, listen to talk radio—especially National Public Radio (NPR), because this is where you will hear the most articulate, well-spoken Americans expressing themselves. Whenever you can, talk along and practice pronunciation.

Finally, connect with the professional HR community offered by SHRM and on LinkedIn HR groups, and especially, but not exclusively, with other Romanians/Eastern Europeans. These connections will help you gain traction, and your career will flourish. 

Have a question for Martin about advancing or managing your career? From big issues to small, please feel free to e-mail your queries to We'll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know. 

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