Sunday, February 03, 2013

Ironic Talent Migration: Spain To Mexico

Follow the talent. Conventionally thinking, migration is a lagging indicator. People leave in droves after the economy tanks. Workers follow jobs. President Barack Obama using talent migration as a leading indicator:

In a global economy, where the best jobs follow talent, whether in Calcutta or Cleveland, we need to do everything we can to encourage that same kind of passion, make it easier for more young people to blaze a new trail.

Figure out where the talent is moving and bank on the "best" jobs following. That model is too simple. However, the concept is useful. The buzz of migration signals a shift in fortunes:

"There are few people who have studied sound [engineering] in Mexico, and there are many in Spain," he said. Gil researched opportunities in Mexico, and within a few weeks of arriving in the Mexican capital, he found employment. "I have friends who stayed in Europe, [went] to London, but they're working as waiters."

Although many Spaniards would prefer to remain in Europe, where they would be close to family and friends, language is proving an obstacle. Maria Bahamonde, an architect from Galicia, arrived in Mexico City as a tourist, but is now looking for work there.

"My parents were afraid that there was violence because of the drug war, but that's not the case,” she said. "They would have preferred that I go to Germany or Switzerland, but unless you are fluent in German or English it's impossible to find comparable employment in those countries. After two months here, I feel confident enough that I can pursue my career professionally here."

Emphasis added. Europe is struggling. Mexico is booming.Talent is flowing from Spain to Mexico, instead of ending up in Germany. This migration is ironic. The geographic stereotype highlighted is a barrier to talent. You go where you know. But the struggles of friends and family in usual destinations such as London has Spaniards looking elsewhere.

For those who can look past the mesofacts about Mexico, there is tremendous opportunity:

Like many Americans, until recently, when I heard “Tijuana” I thought only of drug cartels and cheap tequila. “TJ,” though, is a city of more than two million people (larger than neighboring San Diego), and it has become North America’s electronics assembly hot spot: most of the flat-screen TVs sold in the United States, from companies like Samsung and Sony, are made there, along with everything from medical devices to aerospace parts. Jordi Muñoz, the smart young guy who had taught me about drones and then started 3D Robotics with me, is from TJ — and he persuaded me to build a second factory there to supplement the work we were doing in San Diego.

Shuttling between the two factories — in San Diego, where we engineer our drones, and in TJ, where we assemble them — I’m reminded of a similar experience I had a decade earlier. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I lived in Hong Kong (working for The Economist) and saw how that city was paired with the “special economic zone” of Shenzhen across the border on the Chinese mainland in Guangdong Province. Together, the two created a world-beating manufacturing hub: business, design and finance in Hong Kong, manufacturing in Shenzhen. The clear division of labor between the two became a model for modern China.

Today, what Shenzhen is to Hong Kong, Tijuana is becoming to San Diego. You can drive from our San Diego engineering center to our Tijuana factory in 20 minutes, no passport required. (A passport is needed to come back, but there are fast-track lanes for business people.) Some of our employees commute across the border each day; good doctors are cheaper and easier to find in TJ, as are private schools, although it’s generally nicer to live in San Diego. In some ways, the border feels more like the notional borders of the European Union than a divide between the developed and developing worlds.

And it’s not just TJ. To the east, in Juárez, Dell computers are built by Foxconn, the company that manufactures more than 40 percent of the world’s electronics (including Apple’s iPhone and iPad). To the south, in Querétaro, a factory builds the transmissions that General Motors installs in its Corvettes. The design of General Electric’s GEnx turbine jet engine and the production of interior elements of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner also happen in Mexico. Manufactured goods are the country’s chief export, with private investment in this sector among the highest in the world.

The notion that Mexico offers only cheap labor is just plain off the mark. Mexico graduates some 115,000 engineering students per year — roughly three times as many as the U.S. on a per-capita basis. One result is that some machine specialists are typically easier to find in TJ than in many big American cities. So, for that matter, are accountants experienced in production economics and other highly skilled workers.

Emphasis added. Tijuana's transformation into the next Shenzhen flies under the radar because of our preconceived notions about Mexico. The myths cut both ways. They hurt tourism in Baja. They also offer geographic arbitrage. Chris Anderson's company benefits from TJ's negative reputation.

Spanish talent moving to Mexico City is a harbinger of economic convergence. These desperate pioneers pave the way for others who aren't risk-takers. Eventually, transnational companies catch on to the trend. Jobs follow talent. People develop, not places.

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