In search of employment, many four-year graduates say they have to leave the country’s “Borderplex” region

Despite El Paso’s focus on economic development, new graduates of the public four-year university there make almost $10k less than comparable graduates across the state—and many move for greater opportunity.

When Paulina del Pozo graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso with a degree in industrial engineering, she knew she would have to leave her hometown in order to start her career.

“I started my job search three to four months before graduating and started going to the career fairs and that’s when I really noticed there weren’t that many local companies at the fairs and there weren’t that many opportunities here,” del Pozo said. “That’s when I was, ‘Wow, I’m going to have to go.’”

She graduated from the College of Engineering, one of the largest colleges at the university, but del Pozo said there were few opportunities that were hiring and paying well. She now finds herself employed in Fort Worth, more than 600 miles away from her hometown.

“There’s a lot of competition for engineering positions but not enough positions and not enough large companies,” del Pozo said. “In El Paso the starting salary was probably around a fourth of my starting salary (here) in Fort Worth.”

By the numbers: The issue of graduates leaving the city for work isn’t new, and local officials said the “brain drain” hinders regional economic growth. El Paso County saw 56,000 more people move out to other counties across the country than moved in between 2010 and 2020, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The data does not distinguish between people with and without college degrees, but local officials and residents say significant numbers of college graduates are leaving.

“If we don’t address the issue of brain drain and cultivating a robust talent pool, then we miss out on opportunities to sell our community to the businesses and to the developers that we want to attract,” said Bianca Cervantes, the communications director at Workforce Border Solutions. “So if we don’t address this, we’re just going to keep setting ourselves backwards.”

UTEP officials declined a request for a comment or interview for this story. But state data show that the university’s median first-year wage for bachelor’s recipients, at $33,230, is substantially lower than the state median for other public four-years. That mirrors the overall employment picture for the region, where both growth in the number of jobs and in wages have lagged behind that seen in Texas as a whole over the past decade.

The big idea: All this shows that, even as public universities aim to be engines of economic growth, they—and their students—often are as subject to local economic conditions as they are able to shape them. And, in El Paso, many graduates who had to move elsewhere for career opportunities describe a sense of loss. 

“This is where my family is,” del Pozo said. “I did want to come back home but there was nothing available for me at an entry level and again, it would be a huge salary cut.”

Moving to opportunity

El Paso native Sabrina Núñez graduated from UTEP with a degree in English and American literature in 2015. She completed her master’s degree in advertising and public relations in 2018 and wanted to pursue a job in public relations.

“A lot of people, when I was in high school, were talking about how El Paso didn’t have as many opportunities for the liberal arts in comparison to STEM (science, technology, engineering or mathematics) careers,” Núñez said.

According to recent workforce data, the top three sectors for employment in El Paso were government, trade/transportation/utilities, and health/education services. Núñez said she couldn’t find employment in her field of public relations in her hometown.

“There were virtually no public relations jobs and a lot of the marketing jobs that were advertised were very sales focused, which is not what I wanted to do,” Núñez said. “There were so many more opportunities in the bigger cities (like) Dallas and Austin.”

Second opinion: Tom Fullerton, an economist at UTEP, said the local economy does support graduates from UTEP and three other major universities in what is known as the Borderplex region of El Paso, Las Cruces, N.M., and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. That some of those graduates move to other cities isn’t necessarily worrisome, he said.

“With nearly 15,000 registered businesses in El Paso County, plus another 3,600 in Doña Ana County, plus several thousand in Ciudad Juárez, private enterprise in the Borderplex is almost always recruiting new graduates from those four campuses as well as attracting applicants from many other universities in Canada, the USA, and Mexico.”

And it’s no surprise, Fullerton said, that some of the region’s graduates are recruited by businesses in other cities.

“It simply reflects the fact that all four of these campuses manage highly competitive degree plans and attract many recruiters from multinational corporations and government agencies located throughout North America,” Fullerton said.

“If local college alumni were not being recruited by out-of-region companies and public sector agencies, that really would be a problem.”

Need for more guidance

Nevertheless, Núñez said she wished she had more guidance about career decisions and the financial impact of those choices before she decided to take out tens of thousands of dollars in loans to pay for college.

Rosemary Castro, who graduated from UTEP in 2008 with a bachelor’s in history, agrees.

She incurred more than $90,000 in student debt getting her bachelor’s and then a master’s in public history at nearby New Mexico State University. But Castro never has been  able to find a job in her preferred field of museum education in El Paso or elsewhere. Now a social worker in Austin, she’s paying off debt for an education she doesn’t feel like she uses. 

Rosemary Castro received a master’s degree from New Mexico State University in 2011. (Courtesy of Rosemary Castro)

“Loans, basically, were presented as financial aid, so you don’t have to worry,” Castro said. “You go through the contracts and are aware that you’re going to have to pay it back but you have the six-month grace period. So it’s like, ‘Don’t worry, because it won’t even take you six months to find a job, like, you’ll find a job, and it’s going to pay you well, and you’ll be able to pay off these loans quick.’”

At Workforce Solutions Borderplex, Cervantes said they are currently working to address the lack of knowledge about financial literacy and career readiness.

“We have a youth and career outreach program that was running as a pilot in the past two years that is now about to become permanent statewide because it was so impactful,” Cervantes said.

“The purpose of this program is to facilitate the difficulty of, or even the uncertainty of, what high school seniors should do upon graduating and what a college graduate should do upon graduating, or what their options are. One of those program topics that we are highly focused on is the aspect of financial literacy.”

Known as “Grind Talk TV,” the program features nine episodes that will be streamed in high schools and colleges.

Cervantes said they also have been producing a “Hot Jobs” brochure that lists “hot” jobs with greater employment opportunities versus “cool” occupations that are decreasing in growth. This year some jobs on the “hot” list include computer systems analysts, detectives and librarians. Some of the “cool” jobs include file clerks, data entry keyers and floral designers.

“Obviously you can do whatever you desire and can be successful in whatever you do, however, there are positions that you want to just be careful of and understand that there’s going to be higher competition locally and of course across the country too,” Cervantes said.

Moving forward: Cervantes said programs like these are important for students to access, but also are essential for the economic growth of El Paso.

“We recognize the need to retain our talent because if talent keeps leaving we’ll see the impact on the economy by not having a robust talent pool,” Cervantes said. “In order for new businesses and economic development to happen and new companies to come to El Paso, that attraction is important.”

As an El Paso native and graduate who has had to leave, del Pozo said she hopes the city can expand its job market.

“I think that there’s a lot of talent here in El Paso and there’s a lot of graduates,” she said. “I know a lot of friends of mine that are in Dallas, Austin, San Antonio (and) that’s the popular, big cities, but honestly El Paso is pretty big. We should have bigger companies to retain these people and have the opportunity for career growth.”

Castro, for one, felt she had no choice but to leave. “A lot of us do it and it isn’t always easy leaving family behind, it isn’t always an easy choice,” she said. “But sometimes it’s needed.”

Jewél Jackson covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.

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