EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Border cities like El Paso have seen unemployment drop in recent years, nearly matching national levels. However, wages and population growth have remained stagnant and young professionals are relocating to cities where their skills are better rewarded.
That’s why an El Paso congresswoman has been leading talks over the past few months urging local leaders to develop a regional strategy for raising wages and revert the so-called brain-drain of talent.
“We have much to celebrate with the growth of the health care industry here. It used to be that one out of every eight jobs was in health care, now it’s one out of every six,” said U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas. “But we also have much to work on. We have wages that are stagnant, we are seeing talented people go to other communities in the region, like Albuquerque, because they’re making 15-20 percent more in wages.”
According to the U.S. Census, the median household income in El Paso County was $44,597 as of July 2019, compared to the statewide average of $59,570. More than 50,000 people left El Paso between 2010 and 2018 to places like Fort Worth, Austin or suburban Dallas, where median wages are much higher.
Escobar on Wednesday led another session in the El Paso 2.0 series that began last fall. Ideas for job growth were discussed. Some were embraced, others tossed aside.
The idea of “building on the negatives” — playing up El Paso’s low wages to steal companies from elsewhere — didn’t fare too well.
“We have pursued that strategy before. […] I don’t subscribe to that. I want to see our community invest in companies and people that are already here. (The University of Texas at El Paso) has an incredible engineering department. They’re working on advanced manufacturing. That’s something that the military should take advantage of,” Escobar said.
Expanding the economy around the U.S. Army based at Fort Bliss gained traction. “Take advantage of the military … it’s growing here where in other places it’s going backwards. Make sure (the federal) maintains and supports existing missions,” said Jeff Finkle, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based International Development Council.
Joyce Wilson, CEO of Workforce Solutions Borderplex, said luring STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) jobs here will have an impact on overall wages.
“One of the issues and challenges we still face is that 70 percent of wages in our region are in the lower (levels). … Right now less than 3 percent of the jobs are STEM. If you look at STEM wages we’re talking $31 an hour versus $16.50. That’s what we really want to focus on, how do we increase the percentage of STEM jobs?” she said.