CHIHUAHUA, Mexico (Border Report) — The aerospace industry is flying high in Chihuahua despite COVID-19.
Forty-five American and European airplane and helicopter parts manufacturers now have a presence in the state, and Paris-based Safran just announced a $10 million expansion in the capital.
These factories churn out anything from turbines to landing-gear components, from airplane seats to life rafts and sliders. The industry now employs more than 60,000 workers in Mexico and most of that country’s $8 billion in aerospace exports wind-up in the United States.
Industry officials attribute the growth to various factors. Being close to the U.S. border cuts down on transportation costs. Automotive maquiladora suppliers have been able to adapt and serve the aerospace sector. And, above all, states like Chihuahua are getting good at developing a skilled labor force.
“When I go recruiting companies in advanced manufacturing, they ask about land and infrastructure, of course. But the main concern is having a trained workforce,” said Jerry Pacheco, president and CEO of the Border Industrial Association.
He said states like Chihuahua — which borders Texas and New Mexico — have a 50-year track record of working with U.S.-run maquiladoras and are getting very good at providing skilled employees for each industry.
“Aerospace has taken off in Chihuahua for two main reasons: the supply base and that skilled labor force,” Pacheco said. “We have lots of young people with technical skills. And we have copper-wiring companies that supply the auto industry and that overlaps into aerospace. In essence, the aerospace industry is piggy-backing on the auto industry.”
Mexican universities graduate thousands of engineers a year. But the bulk of the work remains manual. Vocational schools and training centers bear responsibility for making sure young people out of high school and older workers with limited schooling can use and service million-dollar machinery and reliably put together airplane fuselage.
High-tech training in the Chihuahua desert
Keep driving south on Mexican Highway 45 (the old Pan-American Highway) and you might miss the earth-toned buildings of an industrial park in the outskirts of Chihuahua City.
The park is home to half a dozen maquiladoras and Cenaltec, the state-owned Center for High Technology. It’s an institution that prior to the pandemic was training an average of 2,500 workers per month.
“We have lots of students from technical schools, but most are between 20 and 35 years old and are production workers,” said center Director Aaron Olivas Ochoa. “Many people work in maintenance or production lines. But when you’re servicing a machine you need to know electricity, when you’re working with helicopter rotors, you need very specific skills.”
The center played a pivotal role in the Safran expansion. A company official earlier said one of the conditions for opening a new plant in Chihuahua City was for the state to provide trained workers.
The center resembles a maquiladora, with wide, open aisles and machines neatly spaced. Inside, instructors teach factory workers how to do plastic-injection molding, program tool and die machines and apply rivets to metal that’ll become the body of an aircraft.
Olivas said he realizes that some people may find learning in a classroom difficult. That’s why the center is 80% hands-on.
“We make sure they have the practice they need to be productive when they (step into) the plant. Otherwise, they might spend six months learning how to operate a machine,” said Jorge Luis Fernandez, one of the instructors at Cenaltec.
If a worker applies the wrong amount of force on a mock airplane part, no one gets hurt and the worker just learned what to avoid the next time. Electrical pods give workers supervised training without the risk of electrocution or damaging an expensive machine at a factory.
On a corner of the building, Jose Ramiro Cedillo taught maquiladora worker Jorge Cano how to program a tool and die cutting machine.
The student seemed tentative at first, but quickly caught on.
Victor Acosta, another worker, watched from the sidelines.
“Making airplane parts is a big responsibility. You must make a quality product and you feel proud knowing that what you make at the factory is used all over the world,” Acosta said.
The Chihuahua City native said he’s worked in maquiladoras since finishing school. “We learn the processes before going on to the production line. They have very strict quality controls,” he said.
Cedillo said he’s been involved in worker training for several years. His students range from young Mexican engineers to skilled workers in California, Arizona and Texas.
“All of us (instructors) have experience in the industry. What we do here is provide accelerated training programs in regards to machining, dimensioning, milling, turning,” he said. “They go from zero to being able to get the job done and move on to a higher salary.”
Cenaltec officials say maquiladoras have donated many of their training machines and raw materials.
Some even bring their personnel for specialized training at the center, while others allow the trainees to complete their instruction at the plants, under the supervision of Cenaltec instructors.
The training can take anywhere from 25 hours for some certifications, to 350 hours to turn production-line workers into skilled aerospace manufacturing specialists. The state runs four campuses, one each in Chihuahua City, Juarez, Cuauhtémoc and Parral.