JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) – The border economy continues its post-COVID-19 recovery, with manufacturing in Juarez being one of the main drivers.
Juarez has created 19,000 new year-over-year jobs compared to El Paso, Texas’ 5,800 and Las Cruces’ 3,500, according to the latest monthly Paso del Norte Economic Indicator Review from the Hunt Institute at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Most of Juarez’s new jobs (11,800) are in manufacturing, where 330 U.S.-run factories known as maquiladoras are churning out components for automakers in Detroit, computer boards for Asian clients and medical devices for the U.S. market.
But local stakeholders worry their workforce may not be keeping up with global trends. Sixty percent of maquiladoras here cater to the automotive industry, which has begun a transition toward electrical vehicles. Production lines are increasingly automated.
That’s why the state of Chihuahua, the Juarez Maquiladora Association (Index), and the Juarez Technological University (UTCJ) are starting a high-tech training program — the Index Juarez University — for current and future maquiladora employees.
“We have received inquiries from investors all over the world that demand a highly skilled workforce. They want workers competent in skills that are not part of college curricula,” said Oscar Ibanez, the ranking state official in Juarez.
The Index Juarez University this fall will begin training its first cadre of engineering students and graduates in industry-specific information technology, international commerce, advanced English, and mechatronics – a science that combines mechanics, electronics and computing. They will train on Saturdays so they can continue their studies or go on with their jobs on weekdays.
“It will be based on what the industry needs. We will try to match the needs of industry and provide specialization to reduce the gap between what (is taught) at schools versus the actual jobs,” said Sergio Colin, president-elect of Index-Juarez.
He said the maquiladora association is embarking on similar projects all over Mexico to attract more foreign investment with the lure of the highly skilled workers their manufacturing operations require.
“We need to provide the (utility) services, the buildings, the infrastructure they need and also the people they need,” Colin said. “Juarez has excellent people for the jobs of today but we need to make sure we provide the more specialized (workers) they need.”
The training also will give these engineers and skilled technicians the bargaining power to secure better-paying jobs. That is something that Juarez Chamber of Industry President Thor Salayandia says is badly needed on the border.
Wages still an issue for maquiladora workers
“We are coming out of very difficult years due to the (COVID-19) pandemic. New investment is coming in from abroad. New industrial parks are already under construction,” Salayandia said. “(But) wages in Juarez are very low. Most industry is cost-center, with budgets well defined and with limitations on how much they can pay the worker.”
Salayandia said it’s time for Juarez to attract new industry that comes here not just because of affordable workers or the closeness to the United States, but because of the skill of its workforce. Maquiladoras are Juarez’s principal employer, with more than 300,000 workers on their payroll.
“To be a city with low wages is complicated because we will continue to be a city with little development,” he said, referring to limited individual purchasing power in Juarez and a tax base that limits infrastructure improvements. “We need to bring in a different type of manufacturing operation […] Those who can put out a (finished) product, not just those that fill orders for other companies and, thus, have limited wages.”
According to Glassdoor.com.mx, the base pay for a production operator in Juarez is $310 a month, compared to $2,400 a month for an engineer involved in manufacturing. Industry officials say production operators typically get additional stipends for attendance, punctuality and production goals met. Meal, transportation and new employee bonuses also are offered by some plants.
Colin said he could not share more detail about which companies will benefit from Index Juarez University because of non-disclosure agreements with the plants.
But, “believe me, many in local industry are involved in (finding a role) in that new electrical mobility. So, we are on track,” he said.