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In Mexico, a rethinking of the skills taught at tech high schools

The new approach – developed in partnership with industries – is reducing dropout rates and providing a clearer path to higher-paying jobs. 

Whitney Eulich
Jairo Abraham Avilés López graduated from a professional tech school in Chihuahua last year after a new specialization in aerospace was introduced to try and connect the needs of industry employers with the skills taught in public high schools. Mr. Avilés quickly landed a job as a technician in a factory that makes parts for Bombardier Aerospace.

David Omar Chavira Pérez’s parents always encouraged him to finish school before deciding on his future. But, for a moment, he faltered.

Last year, he couldn’t see how his accounting degree from a public technical high school here would get him anywhere in the real world. The police force seemed like a more promising option – maybe, he thought, he should drop out of school and get on with his life.

It’s a common refrain among public school students in Mexico, where more than half drop out before finishing high school. One of the top reasons they cite for quitting school is an inability to see how their classroom learning applies to job opportunities, according to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). 

But changes to the curriculum at professional tech schools in the state of Chihuahua kept David in the classroom. A specialization in foreign trade – introduced via an international nongovermental organization working with the education sector, the government, and local industry – means David now has a clearer understanding of where his education can take him. 

“My internship changed my mind,” David says, referring to a required apprenticeship he’s currently participating in as part of his three-year program. He’s working in the accounting department of an aerospace company focusing on imports and exports, a high-demand job that requires knowledge of ever-changing trade regulations. “I love numbers and this work is so cool,” he says.

Mexico is about to enter a period where it has the largest – and most educated – population in its history. As the education system works to capitalize on this “youth bulge,” industries that rely on well-trained workers are emerging as key partners in bridging the education-to-employment gap.

“Brains are more important than brawn today,” says Luis Rubio, the president of COMEXI, the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations. “We’re seeing factories totally full of robots, so Mexico’s advantage is no longer the price of labor. Either Mexico improves its education or we can’t be successful.”

School and industry partnerships 

Although Mexico invests more than 5 percent of its gross domestic product in education, on par with the spending in more developed nations, it isn’t seeing a well-qualified workforce as a result. Primary school enrollment is now nearly universal, and there’s roughly 70 percent enrollment in secondary school. But just because kids are in their seats doesn’t mean they are learning relevant skills. It’s a problem across the region, where on average students are more than one year behind what is expected, based on the economic and social development indices in Latin America, according to a new IDB study

As schools realign education with the demands of local industries, students are more prepared to step into advanced roles, thus earning more. David’s work in foreign trade, for example, could result in between 6,000 and 9,000 pesos ($340 and $510) per month in the aerospace industry once he graduates. That would double his family’s household income, he says. It is also higher than the typical $250 household income for the family of a tech school student, which is below Mexico's poverty line. 

Already, the International Youth Foundation (IYF), which introduced the curriculum changes to tech schools (known as Conalep) here via its Rutas program, has seen a six percent decrease in dropouts in schools that received the intervention between 2015 and 2016, according to an internal impact evaluation. They also found an increase in academic performance after socio-emotional skills – like teamwork – were introduced. The model is gaining the attention of other state governments and industries that want to retain and attract more high-skill employment opportunities – ones that move beyond routine conveyor belt work and produce higher-value products, like plane parts.

It was industry interest that spurred the change in Chihuahua, a state that borders New Mexico and Texas. In late 2013, almost 30 years after the first aerospace factory opened here, a group of industry leaders gathered to talk about the desire to improve the technology in their businesses. 

“We said, ok, so what do we need to make this happen?” recalls José Luis Rodriguez Ramos, the director of the aerospace committee for INDEX, a national organization of exporters and factories. “We needed the education part.”

Mr. Rodriguez was put in touch with IYF, which was already working with the United States Agency for International Development to identify a variety of dynamic industries – from automotive to hospitality to aerospace – that could benefit from better-trained technical school grads in both Chihuahua and Nuevo León. Their model has since expanded to other states including Mexico and Quintana Roo.

IYF designed the curriculum changes with Chihuahua’s industry needs in mind. It also created teacher trainings that focused on teaching skills such as showing up to work on time or how to be a team player. The curricula in six other sectors, besides aerospace, were also made available across tech schools nationally.

“I knew this program was working when we saw changes to the [Conalep] curriculum in less than nine months,” says Rodriguez. Mexico’s education system is highly centralized and change is not normally something that happens quickly. 

Flexibility moving forward is key 

The challenges that IYF and partners are confronting in Chihuahua – such as students who don’t necessarily see a connection between their studies and future work opportunities – are common across Latin America and the Caribbean, according to The IDB's new report, “Learning Better: Public Policy for Skills Development,” released Aug. 30. 

In Mexico, 44 percent of companies say they have trouble filling jobs, compared to a 35 percent global average, according to the IDB. The IYF found that there were 15 million unfilled job vacancies in Mexico over the past five years. Between 7 and 9 percent of those, or roughly 1.2 million jobs, were at the technician level, the positions Conalep is training its graduates for. Professional technical high schools in Mexico are not often a student’s first choice after junior high. They tend to attract a population already predisposed to early dropouts, where the opportunity of finishing school is often outweighed by the cost of not earning money for the family. 

What’s lacking are channels between the private sector and schools, says Laura Ripani, an editor of the IDB report, and a labor market specialist. She points to internships and open communication as key to improving the school-to-work pipeline. 

To succeed, the relationship between industry, government, and schools will have to stay flexible, says Jose Nuñez, the human resource manager for American Industries Group, a company that helps international manufacturers establish plants in Mexico and works with Conalep interns and graduates.

“These grads are now coming out with expert knowledge, and we are starting to get the exact kinds of technicians we need. But, in two years, I might not need any more foreign trade technicians,” Mr. Nuñez says. “It all depends on the market, on the work being done here, and we need the schools to be flexible to those changes.”

Jairo Abraham Avilés López graduated from Conalep last year and is already enrolled in a part-time engineering degree program at the Chihuahua Institute of Technology. From his cubicle on a local factory floor, he troubleshoots malfunctioning products and tools. As assemblymen buff sheet metal and hammer stencils at work stations in front of him, Mr. Avilés describes his trajectory.

“This is a really specialized industry – it’s hard to get into,” says Avilés. “You need at least 1-2 years experience” to become a technician in this field, something he accomplished straight out of school after Rutas introduced a specialization in aerospace during his second year of studies. He completed an internship in this same factory, where he’s now working.

“If aerospace hadn’t been a study option I would have stuck with [a degree in] automatization,” he says, describing it as robot mechanics. “There aren’t as many job options [in that field], and it’s certainly not as exciting,” he says. 

Fernando Alberto Mora Soto, the head of training and partnerships for Conalep Chihuahua, is on the factory floor visiting Avilés today. After more than 24 years working with Conalep students, Mr. Mora says it’s a thrill to travel by plane these days.

“I look around and know that at least one part of the plane I’m on was made in Chihuahua,” he says. “And probably some of our graduates” had a hand in it. 

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