When looking for highly trained and skilled labor, it pays to look south of the border.

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There’s an unfortunate stereotype about Mexico, often perpetuated in business circles in the United States (and occasionally, even by the current president.) It’s the idea that Mexican workers are only qualified for the most rudimentary of manufacturing work, and that finding skilled workers is difficult. That might have been the case 20 years ago, but a lot has changed since then.

In recent years, the Mexican government has worked diligently to improve the education and training of the Mexican workforce, and the results are dramatic. In the past decade, Mexico had doubled the number of its public two-year colleges and four-year universities. The result? University enrollment in Mexico has tripled in 30 years, and the majority of those university studies are in STEM programs. Two of the top 5 universities in all of Latin America are located in Mexico — Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City, and Instituto Tecnologico de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey. Both are focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs.

The VET (Vocational, Educational, Technological) program has been a highlight of Mexican educational policy, focused on increasing access to quality STEM programs, but also committed to providing the kind of educational infrastructure that makes sure Mexico is producing high quality, world-class scientists and engineers. In just the last decade, 52 institutions have been granted authority to evaluate and certify competencies, and 140 competency management committees have been formed across such fields as construction, automotive, tourism, and renewable energy. As a result, The Occupational Competency Standardization and Certification Council now issues approximately 60,000 certificates per year.

“Mexico is now one of the top producers of engineers in the world,” said Oscar Suchil, director of graduate affairs at the public National Polytechnic Institute, recently told the Washington Post. In fact, Mexico graduated more engineers than the United States did in 2017. These engineers are young and well-trained in the latest technologies; 60 percent of the Mexican population is under 35, while only 6.5 percent are over 65. This means no expensive re-training programs for companies who employ an engineer who got his degree in the age of vacuum-tube computers.

But, in striking contrast with the United States, these young engineers often struggle to find work in their field. There are more qualified workers than there are jobs for them, so a lot of engineers are underemployed, working jobs below their training. While the number of engineering graduates has soared in recent years, the number of Mexicans employed as engineers has grown only slightly, from 1.1 million in 2006 to 1.3 million in 2012. This has created an ideal market for employers, who can hire well-educated, creative Mexican engineering graduates who are on the hunt for more interesting work, and eager to use their training and degrees.

With the recent sharp increase in the cost of skilled labor in China, Mexico has become an increasingly attractive option for companies looking to keep labor costs low. In 2003, Mexican salaries were 189 percent higher than Chinese salaries, but the market has changed significantly; now, Mexican salaries are 19.6 lower than their Chinese competitors. In addition, far more Mexican laborers are bilingual, having studied English as part of their university work, and they work in the same or similar time zone as their American employers, both factors making communication much simpler and more efficient.

“Mexico used to be a country that produced T-shirts and jeans and shoes,” Christopher Wilson, a senior associate at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, told the Journal of Commerce Magazine. “Now it’s a country that produces cars and airplanes.” That’s a big difference, and tech and manufacturing companies in the United States are taking notice. In the automotive sector alone, 84 of the top 100 auto parts companies in the world have set up manufacturing operations in Mexico. Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan and BMW have all announced their intent to move some portion of their operations to Mexico.

Mexico has also become a world leader in aerospace manufacturing. There are almost 300 aerospace manufacturing companies and support entities operating in Mexico currently, employing more than 40,000 highly skilled workers. Bombardier has invested more than $500 million into its Mexico plants in the last decade.

When looking for highly trained and skilled labor, as well as innovators and creative designers, it pays to look south of the border.

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