The local work force has plenty of first- and second-generation Mexican Americans who often lack the education needed to hold or create high-paying jobs. Even when young El Pasoans graduate from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) with technology-related degrees, they often have to leave the area because there aren’t many high-paying technology jobs. “It takes an educated work force and a university system that can put out the engineers, scientists, and technicians needed to work,” declares Mr. Guerra. “They’re turning out a good crop of engineers at UTEP, but we need a way to keep them here. … That’s one of the reasons behind the technology initiatives.”
Rather than trying to lure high-tech industries away from other cities, El Paso expects to build on what it has – the maquiladora industry, for example – and develop technology based on the area’s needs. The chamber has set up an investment network to raise capital for entrepreneurs with technology-related ideas. The network has more than $4 million in commitments from individual investors and nontraditional lenders, according to Mr. Guerra.
“From a regional economic perspective, what we want to accomplish is to build intellectual capital that will lead us to wealth formation,” says Nathan Christian, chairman of the chamber’s strategic planning council and regional president for border banking at Wells Fargo Bank. “And we can only do that if we can export goods and services of higher value to the rest of the world.”
Henry Ingle, a UTEP professor and associate vice-president for technical planning and distance learning, stresses that El Paso’s vision for a high-tech future will go nowhere unless the city has an educated work force. The Internet becomes truly useful, he says, when it’s used to enhance entrepreneurs’ analytical skills and abilities. Right now, about 11 percent of El Pasoans have college degrees, compared with a national figure of 26 percent, according to the Census Bureau. To make El Paso into a hub for e-commerce, Mr. Ingle says, the next generation needs education – a challenge faced by much of the U.S. Hispanic community.
To solve the learning gap, UTEP has assumed a frontline role in the e-commerce initiative. Mr. Holguin plans to house the e.Mexico platform’s high-tech complex in an existing building at UTEP. The complex will try to tap into the best talent and resources of universities on both sides of the border – UTEP, New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, and Mexico’s Monterrey Technical Institute, which has a branch in Ciudad Juarez.
The UTEP facility was built in 1997 with “all revolutionary and evolutionary trends of the Internet being considered in its design,” according to the e.holguingroup’s proposal. The building includes six large auditoriums wired for video conferencing and distance learning, as well as advanced-technology classrooms with a network of more than 300 computers. Mr. Holguin believes the complex will expand via Internet links to other technology centers to cover the entire border region.
Meanwhile, the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce has started turning one floor of its offices into a 5,000-square-foot technology center to provide technical support for educational institutions, business-to-business commerce, and electronic start-up businesses. When completed, the $10 million facility will provide everything from training programs for high school seniors to college-level computer classes and technical help for private companies, says Wes Jurey, executive director of the chamber. Ron Munden, a principal of the El Paso Venture Group, expects the technology center to serve as a model for other technology centers along the border. The e.holguingroup plans to sign agreements with UTEP, the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, and the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to launch the “virtual expansion” to other educational institutions and business groups along the border. Virtual expansion will deliver the equivalent of a billion-dollar technology complex, Mr. Holguin believes, and border crossings will become e-commerce gateways to form a major Internet exchange.
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