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Border Plant Offers Mexicans Skilled Work - 2002-02-13

In the past 20 years, the city of Juarez, Mexico, on the border with the United States, has grown dramatically as an industrial center. The city, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, now has more than 350 assembly plants, known as maquiladoras. The foreign-owned plants use Mexico's lower-cost labor to assemble products that are then shipped over the border to the United States. But some of these plants are beginning to use more sophisticated technology.

The machinery hums, and the workers sort and assemble parts inside the factories run in Juarez by Delphi Automotive Systems. This is the kind of work most often associated with the plants operated by U.S. and other foreign companies south of the border. The workers earn good salaries, by Mexican standards, in a clean, safe environment, where they are even given lunch each day in the factory cafeteria. But, for the company, manufacturing products here costs a fraction of what it would in the United States.

However, there is more to the Delphi operation here than this so-called "maquila" work, or manual labor. In a nearby building, Mexican design engineer Enrique Garcia sits in a quiet room manipulating a three-dimensional image on a computer screen. He is creating a new driving shaft mechanism that Delphi hopes to sell to its automotive manufacturing customers worldwide. The engineer grins as he talks about how his work here contradicts the image most people have of a foreign-operated plant in Mexico.

"Some people ask me what I do here, and when I try to explain to them what we do here, they get surprised, because they thought we only do maquila work. They thought that people here in Mexico can only do maquiladora work," Mr. Garcia says.

Enrique Garcia came to Juarez from his home city of Torreon, 800 kilometers to the south. There, he studied engineering at a local technical school. He says being able to apply his knowledge and training here in Delphi's Technical Center is like a dream come true. He is also expanding his education, with company help, taking advanced engineering courses across the border in El Paso.

The U.S. manager of the Delphi Steering Systems Design division at the technical center is Jerry Haller.

"We draw people from all over the country of Mexico, and, in fact, we have people from all over the world. But, primarily, we have people from all over Mexico. (There are) very capable schools in the country, and we draw very capable people across the country. It is a definite add-on to our abilities in the globalization process. We could not possibly get all the resources we wanted within the confines, say, of the Midwest, to all of the global work that we need to do," Mr. Haller says.

Mr. Haller says Delphi has several such technical centers around the world, but that this one in Juarez is the biggest. He says it is a convenient location for the company, because it allows U.S. managers to live in their own country, but work during the day across the border with Mexican counterparts, eager to learn more, and to do more, in terms of designing components and systems.

"If you are in the business of what I call technology transfer, which is moving your know-how from your headquarters to other regions of the world, the border is a much easier place to do that than other countries. We can move people with know-how down to the border, and they still live within their normal environment, in this case El Paso, Texas, but they can work over here and teach, mentor and train our new people," he says.

Since the Delphi Technical Center in Juarez was opened in 1995, it has produced 21 patents. There are another 100 or so pending. Devices designed here at this center may end up being used in motor vehicles all over the world, since the company makes components for automobile manufacturers in every corner of the globe.

Not all maquiladora plants in Juarez offer such sophisticated operations, but the Delphi plant is considered a model that Mexican officials would like to see replicated. Mexican President Vicente Fox recently held a meeting with U.S. investors to tout his country's advantages for manufacturing, and invited them to bring more such employment opportunities south of the border.