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Upskilling El Paso's workforce key to raising wages, Workforce Solutions CEO says

Upskilling.

That’s what El Paso’s workforce needs to increase wages and grow the economy, said Leila Melendez, chief executive officer of Workforce Solutions Borderplex, this area’s public employment agency.

“Sixty-seven percent of our (area) workers are in the bottom half of skills and wages. Ninety thousand of them have at least a high school diploma, plus some college, but are in entry level jobs and earn less than the living wage,” Melendez said.

She shared the grim insight about a majority of El Paso workers on Feb. 21 at the El Paso Chamber’s first “State of the Workforce” event at the Downtown El Paso convention center.

El Paso County’s living wage is $18.09 per hour for a single person, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology living wage calculator.

Leila Melendez, Workforce Solutions Borderplex CEO, speaks Feb. 21 at the El Paso Chamber's first 'State of the Workforce' event at the Downtown El Paso convention center.
Leila Melendez, Workforce Solutions Borderplex CEO, speaks Feb. 21 at the El Paso Chamber's first 'State of the Workforce' event at the Downtown El Paso convention center.

“Imagine what our economy and our community would look like if we just upskilled those 90,000 workers,” she said.

It would increase wages and also open more jobs at lower-skill levels as workers move into higher-skilled positions, she said.

The way to do this is to get employers to focus on providing more training for current and new workers, she said.

Employers often need financial help to provide training, Melendez said. That’s why officials at Workforce Solutions and the city of El Paso hope they can land a $50 million, five-year federal grant to provide training for jobs in aerospace, health care, information technology, and advanced manufacturing.

The goal is to provide job training for 5,000 to 10,000 people during the five-year-grant, Melendez said after her speech.

Leila Melendez, Workforce Solutions Borderplex CEO, talks to Niki DaSilva, an U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation official, at the El Paso Chamber's first 'State of the Workforce' event Feb. 21. Andrea Hutchins, El Paso Chamber CEO, is in the background, right.
Leila Melendez, Workforce Solutions Borderplex CEO, talks to Niki DaSilva, an U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation official, at the El Paso Chamber's first 'State of the Workforce' event Feb. 21. Andrea Hutchins, El Paso Chamber CEO, is in the background, right.

El Paso is one of 22 finalists for the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Distressed Area Recompete Pilot Program. Six to eight cities are expected to be selected for the grants later this year, Melendez said.

She called on area employers to sign letters of commitments with Borderplex and the city to show federal officials that “we have the jobs for the workers with the approved skills and support.”

More: UTEP-led coalition wins second big federal grant to grow aerospace, defense manufacturing

El Paso’s job market has mostly recovered from the damage done by the pandemic, Melendez said after her speech. She became Workforce Solutions CEO in March 2020, just as the pandemic began.

"The message is we're really back to good employment numbers," Melendez said.

"But where we still have room is getting more people to be looking and interested in jobs," because some people have dropped out of the job market, she said. "And getting (more jobs) closer to a living wage."

Alejandra Gonzalez, a recent UTEP grad, takes part in a 'reverse job fair' Feb. 21 at the El Paso Chamber's first 'State of the Workforce' event. She and 17 other job seekers displayed their resumes to spark interest from companies' recruiters.
Alejandra Gonzalez, a recent UTEP grad, takes part in a 'reverse job fair' Feb. 21 at the El Paso Chamber's first 'State of the Workforce' event. She and 17 other job seekers displayed their resumes to spark interest from companies' recruiters.

Alejandra Gonzalez, 23, who graduated in December with a business degree from the University of Texas at El Paso, said she's found El Paso-area "wages a little lower than I expected" in her search for a human relations job.

Gonzalez has seen friends move to Arizona, Dallas, and Austin for better wages, she said. But she wants to remain in her hometown with her family, she said.

Gonzalez was one of 18 El Paso job seekers who took part in a "reverse job fair" as part of Wednesday's event. The job seekers sat behind tables with their resumes prominently displayed. It was up to companies' representatives to recruit them.

Melendez in her speech said she understands employers "can't pay higher wages just because. Better wages come with better skills."

More job training by employers and increased wages can help reverse El Paso’s brain drain, she said.

"Let's keep our kids here. Let's bring them back home," Melendez said. "Let's be the city of brain gain."

Vic Kolenc may be reached at 915-546-6421; vkolenc@elpasotimes.com@vickolenc on Twitter, now known as X

This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: Upskilling key to raising El Paso wages, Workforce Solutions CEO says

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