The culture shock I experienced when I left the non-profit economy several decades ago for what many considered the “Big Time,” the for-profit economy just over the Mexican border, was not as sobering as the culture shock I experienced when I returned to look at business in today’s Mexico.
My experience was immeasurably positive.
The first thing I noticed on my return this year was the number of women in management and leadership roles in Baja California business. When I operated tours to Tijuana in the 1970s, one of my bilingual guides was a young lady student from the Autonomous University of Baja California. She graduated into a bank teller job; seven years later she became the first woman bank manager in Tijuana. That pleased me.
When I reported to work in what was then northern Mexico’s largest business — the decades-old world-famous Caliente Race Track in Tijuana, with 1,500 employees — very few business or professional women existed in Baja California. None at the race track, none in local or state government, none in banking. None. And there were few in Rotary, Kiwanis or chambers of commerce or politics. Very few.
The first person I met in Tijuana in May 2018 was a young woman, Alejandra Chávez, an engineer working in quality control at a 5,000-employee medical device company, Medtronic, managed from Minneapolis, Minnesota.
She has completed half her two years of studies for a master’s degree from Baja California’s respected private CETYS University and its partner St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. Her undergraduate work was at Tijuana’s Jesuit Ibero-American University.
Yes, a private Baja California university partnered with an American public university in graduate education. This is truly a “hands across the border” program. It also reflects a massive “hands across the border” industrial program.
Medtronic designs and manufactures medical devices of all sorts, from catheters to complicated devices for open heart surgery. It is one of the world’s largest medical equipment development companies and has been granted more than 53,000 patents. The company invested $2.2 billion in R&D in 2017.
Medtronic stands out not only for its 5,000 on-site employees but also with its native Mexican management. Forty per cent of its professional engineering staff is female. That will grow: the company has a formal program called Medtronic Women’s Networking.
The company operates in what’s referred to as a “cluster.” Baja California may host one of the largest medical device clusters in the world. Currently there are 76 medical device manufacturers in the state. Forty-nine of these companies are in Tijuana. A staggering number of people, 64,000, manufacture medical devices in the state, 50,000 in Tijuana alone.
Miguel Rochin, a local native, is Medtronic’s vice-president for Mexico operations. He’s the “guy.” He also manages a facility in Guaymas, Mexico, 1,000 kilometers south in Sonora.
After meeting him I went to the million-person state capital Mexicali, 120 miles east on a road that didn’t even exist when I worked in Mexico.
Here is where the private non-profit CETYS university enters the picture. CETYS is an acronym for what loosely translates to “Center of higher technology education.”
At CETYS, most students are Mexican and some are American. The tuition is less expensive than at U.S. universities, and many classes are taught in English. And more importantly, employers are lined up to hire them when they graduate. CETYS can’t graduate enough to fill the demand.
CETYS has three campuses: Tijuana with 3,000 students, the main campus in Mexicali with 5,000 and the newest campus in the Pacific seaport city of Ensenada, 150 miles southwest of Mexicali.
Sports fans are familiar with CETYS because its high schools play American football and regularly play full schedules on the southern California high school circuit. At the university level its application to join NCAA Class III intercollegiate competition in the U.S. has been approved and it will probably start competing with American colleges and universities in 2020.
The university has myriad links with the private sector — American, Japanese, Mexican, Korean, German and Chinese companies that operate in Baja. The names of these companies are familiar: Gulfstream (General Dynamics), United Technologies, Medtronic, Kenworth Trucks, South Korea’s LG, Toyota and Honeywell. Recently a large local company, LMI Aerospace, was purchased by a Belgian company that wants into the North American market.
These and dozens of other companies line up every year to hire CETYS graduates that are not only technically equipped but speak the international language of engineering and manufacturing — English.
The links CETYS has developed were explained to me by Jorge Sosa López, director of the Center of Innovation, and José Luis Arroyo Pelayo, corporate relations director.
That is what executives I interviewed told me — in English.
In today’s Baja California, Samsung manufactures flat screen televisions with 3,200 employees, giant Taiwanese “Foxcon” makes TVs with 4,500 employees. Infocus is building facilities to join the other 76 factories making medical devices. America’s Medline is building a 100,000-square-foot factory where 3,000 employees will make medical devices. Skyworks, a Massachusetts company, produces 9.5 million products a day in its 360,000-square- foot Mexicali plant that operates 24 hours a day.
In Mexicali, there are companies from 18 different countries functioning. And they all need engineers.
Of 160 Mexican companies making medical devices nationally, 76 are in Baja California, employing 64,000 people.
Interviews with CETYS university teachers and officials, factory general managers, industry executives and entrepreneurs can be summed up in a few words: “If it can be designed and built, it can be designed, built and produced by CETYS engineering graduates who speak English and Spanish.”
In the words of Miguel Ángel Félix Díaz Alonso, treasurer of the medical device cluster of Baja California that manufactures wheelchairs, orthopedic equipment, catheters, open heart surgery devices, etc., “If it can be built, we can do it, all 64,000 of us.”
Raoul Lowery Contreras is the author of The Armenian Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy and Murder in the Mountains: War Crime in Khojaly. He also wrote for the New American News Service of the New York Times Syndicate.