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Group hopes to stem Mexican tech brain drain

Low salaries, stiff competition and a lack of opportunities often force Mexican-born engineers to seek opportunites in the United States. The Mexican Talent Network is hoping to change that.
Oscar Rossbach, chief executive officer of Industrias Rossbach, is among those in Mexico that are boosting the reputation of Mexican high-tech workers outside the country while culling their contacts and expertise to create employment at home.
Oscar Rossbach, chief executive officer of Industrias Rossbach, is among those in Mexico that are boosting the reputation of Mexican high-tech workers outside the country while culling their contacts and expertise to create employment at home. Gregory Bull / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Armed with a cybernetics engineering and computer systems degree, Mexico City native Angel Camacho arrived for his first day on the job as an engineer in California’s Silicon Valley and was immediately given an assignment by another engineer: Take out the trash.

“I said to him, ’Hey, did you see my badge?’ “ Camacho said. “And he said ’Oh, sorry.’ I think I was the first Mexican he ever saw in a professional capacity.”

South of the border, Mexican engineers face other problems. There are so few challenging high-tech jobs, and so many well-trained professionals, that a typical starting Mexican salary for an engineering graduate from the nation’s top university is just $15,000 a year — far less than many Silicon Valley janitors.

The Mexican Talent Network is trying change all this by boosting the reputation of Mexican technology professionals at home and abroad while building on their contacts and expertise to create employment at home. The group received initial funding from the Mexican government and is filing legal paperwork this month for U.S. nonprofit organization status.

Mexico hopes its nascent high-tech sector can create good jobs and help diversify the economy at a time when rising wages for low-skill labor are driving textile and assembly factories to poorer nations in Asia and Central America.

Despite skimpy investment in research and development, Mexico has seen a boom in students seeking high-tech degrees, even as Mexico’s economy fails to provide many high-paying high-tech jobs.

Mexico’s National Association of Universities and Institutions of Higher Education says about 650,000 students are enrolled in full-time undergraduate degree programs in engineering here — almost twice the 366,000 students pursuing similar degrees in the United States, according to The American Society for Engineering Education.

The problem is creating local jobs for the graduates. A recent analysis by Mexican and U.S. immigration experts found that nearly a third of all Mexicans with advanced degrees leave Mexico for the U.S.

“Immigration has become a way to make up for the lack of opportunities in Mexico’s job market,” said the executive director of the government-run Institute for Mexicans Abroad, Carlos Gonzalez.

These professionals are often overlooked in the vast flood of Mexican migration. Of the estimated 11 million Mexican immigrants living in the United States, less than 5 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree, feeding a stereotype among Americans that Mexicans don’t do high-tech work.

“When they want a good-looking yard or well-paved road, they hire a Mexican,” Camacho said. “But it’s not the same with their IT servers. If they want them to run properly, they usually hire Indian or Chinese immigrants.”

Gonzalez said the talent network could help turn Mexico’s brain drain into a “brain gain” as immigrants “who are working in very specialized niches of the global economy will return to our country, if not physically, at least through their ideas and projects.”

Camacho, who heads the program’s pioneering Silicon Valley chapter, says the idea arose during a 2004 meeting between Mexican President Vicente Fox and the chief executive of major chip-maker Advanced Micro Devices Inc., Hector Ruiz, who was born in Mexico but studied engineering in the United States and went on to build a career there.

Mexico’s government has sponsored conferences for the network, but Camacho says the group is growing more by word of mouth. His Silicon Valley chapter holds regular meetings to share ideas and there are plans for similar groups in other U.S. cities.

The fledgling network holds regular dinner meetings, each with a topic such as how marketing works in the United States, where members can inform each other of job openings, good accountants or contacts with Mexican companies that could help them out with a project.

Once the nonprofit is fully up and running, Camacho plans to solicit corporate memberships and enable high-tech workers to get the same kind of help through the Web site.

“We want to have varying levels of membership: free ones in which people can learn about upcoming speakers or general advice and another level of membership in which we will encourage donations for those looking to log in and see actual job offerings or opportunities for project contracts with companies,” Camacho said.

Gonzalez’s Institute for Mexicans Abroad sponsored a summer conference in Mexico’s capital for 250 high-tech professionals from at home and abroad.

Oscar Rossbach, chief executive officer of Industrias Rossbach, a 120-person company in Mexico City that manufactures microscopes, said he was initially skeptical.

“I thought to myself, ’What the hell am I going to accomplish in a three-day meeting sponsored by the Foreign Relations Department? They’re good for cocktail parties, but the high-tech industry?” Rossbach said. “But I went anyway.”

The result was a meeting with Simon Goldbard, who had started a biotech company in the U.S. and who has helped Rossbach try to tap into the U.S. pharmaceutical industry.

“Pharmaceutical companies do not just open the door when you knock,” Rossbach said. “You have to have the right connections. The market is so big, so complex that it would be very difficult for us in Mexico to find our way on our own.”

Rossbach says Goldbard arranged meetings with pharmaceutical companies and helped the Mexican firm navigate U.S. paperwork.

“It is very important to have someone on our side who can think like American people and also like a Mexican person,” Rossbach said.

In what could become the Mexican Talent Network’s first success story, Industrias Rossbach is conducting pilot tests on microscopes for the U.S. market.