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Dr. Mark Kroll, Dean, Robert C. Vackar College of Business & Entrepreneurship, UT-Rio Grande Valley, Sergio Villarreal, general manager of Humanetics Precision Sheet Metal, Danny Teixeira, general manager of Cardone Industries, and Jason Wolfe, president of NovaLink, Inc.

BROWNSVILLE, RGV – The focus of conversation at a summit last week was on providing education on advanced manufacturing to students at an early age.

Emphasizing that a trained workforce would incentivize companies to invest in the region.

Why advanced manufacturing? Because the region has a huge manufacturing sector in Reynosa and Matamoros.

The advanced manufacturing summit was organized by U.S. Representative Filemon Vela to discuss vocational training and manufacturing in the border region. The summit held a panel discussion with local business leaders and officials at the UT-Rio Grande Valley Brownsville campus last Friday.

The panel stressed that the region needed to invest in training and educating the workforce in advanced manufacturing, and how early exposure to these skills are the key to bring investors to the Valley.

Sergio Villarreal, the general manager of Humanetics Precision Sheet Metal, said that in his experience, engineers who just graduated from college are often not exposed to manufacturing and what it entails, an example of why there needs to be more vocational opportunities. Arguing, “11th grade is too late,” to introduce students to manufacturing.

Humanetics Precision Sheet Metal, a mechanical and industrial engineering firm, is a privately held company and employs 75 people at their McAllen distribution facility. Villarreal said there needs to be educational investment from the region to employ people with advanced manufacturing skill sets.

“The thing is, we have to have capital investment and we have to have these technicians that are in a certain advanced manufacturing level,” Villarreal said. “That’s what’s allowing us to maintain this operation in McAllen.”

Danny Teixeira, the general manager of Cardone Industries, said the company is in a “very busy time expanding,” and how growing remains the “number one focus” for the company.

The privately held manufacturer repairs used or broken automotive parts and employs an estimated 3,000 people combined in the Matamoros, Brownsville and Harlingen facilities. Teixeira explains how manufacturing could expand and create more opportunities in the region.

“There’s a huge opportunity for the Valley in terms of bringing manufacturing, support manufacturing, to the border region,” Teixeira said. “Contrary to what many people may think, it doesn’t make sense to manufacture everything in Mexico.”

Teixeira continued that the main problem in trying to bring more manufacturing jobs in the region is not having a trained workforce in technical skills instead of engineering, an area of study he believes has been neglected.

“I’m certainly a big proponent of engineering education and STEM education, but I think we also have to be sure we’re not narrowing too strictly to engineering degrees,” Teixeira said. “There’s a lot of technology degrees, a lot of vocational types of students and demand how an industry certainly a lot more in demand here that I think sometimes we neglect to put enough focus on. Engineering is a great career path, but it’s not for everybody.”

Jason Wolfe, the president of NovaLink Inc., said during the election cycle, he didn’t like the rhetoric the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) received, and how it was viewed more as a problem than a resource. Wolfe continues that NAFTA is a resource for manufacturing, but in order to complete those manufacturing jobs, the workforce needs to be trained in those skills.

“It takes skill, it takes training, it takes all these skilled jobs that we’ve been talking about and so that’s where if we start looking at manufacturing, and trying to keep my conversation to the lower South Texas and the border region, there are things that we could take advantage of, Mexico is a resource,” Wolfe said.

NovaLink Inc. manufactures products for 15 individual companies, ranging from fire extinguishers to textile to garments in the Brownsville-Matamoros area.

Wolfe said he wants to bring the fabric mill industry back to the U.S., knowing the retail industry wants faster distribution of their products, but it requires technical and design skills, jobs that have since moved to Asia, posing a setback to the investment.

“One of the things I always heard every time I turned on the TV was let’s bring jobs back to the U.S.,” Wolfe said. “I think there are certain jobs that we need to be realistic about bringing back to the U.S. and some of those the Valley could take advantage of.”

Wolfe emphasized that education at an early age will help bring those jobs to the Valley, especially giving students exposure to different technical degrees instead of college.

“I think that its disappointing to see that the education system doesn’t get as much of the shine as it should in all the debate that is going on. Teachers are under paid, our schools are not well funded, going down to whole other conversation, but if you get to the kids early on in life and its not just looking out to college. College is this big void of ‘what am I going to do when I get to college,’ and starting to talk to kids about all the different things that are out there.”

Wolfe wants to get ahead of the rest of the country by training students and the workforce and establish a manufacturing sector in the Valley, what he believes would be going to back to the old days of American manufacturing.

“What I think we need to do in the Valley is that we need to focus on building that resource that allows us to take advantage of what the rest of the country is missing out on,” Wolfe said. “One is, and when this was being said what I thought was, okay lets go back to the days of manufacturing when everyone was manufacturing, that was the mainstay of what we were doing in the United States.

“That doesn’t mean going back the idea of twisting nuts and bolts, that means going back to, I’m going to earn my way. I’m gonna make my paycheck, I’m going to go home and be proud, I’m going to go home to my family that I made my money. That to me is going back to the old ways of manufacturing. So lets focus on that here. Lets train our area to be different than any other area.”

Distribution Hub

At the summit, Danny Teixeira, the general manager of Cardone Industries, said he envisions the Valley becoming a “distribution hub” for manufactures, but says the region lacks the infrastructure other metropolitan areas have.

“The other thing that I think sometimes we don’t talk enough about as it comes to South Texas, is how can we make South Texas more of a distribution hub,” Teixeira said.

“Because you got all these manufactures, certainly in our case, we’ve gotta get our products out to the customer. So currently we’re distributing out of Dallas, Texas and Philadelphia. If you look at infrastructure in those much larger metropolitan areas, they are much more set up to support mass distribution throughout the country, but if we could do something here locally, become more of a distribution hub, that helps manufacturers because its all about speed for us.”

Speed, the panel emphasized, is important for local business to distribute their products, but infrastructure for transportation isn’t developed to its full potential. Teixeira said wait times at the international bridges, and not utilizing the ports and airports for distribution stalls the Valley from becoming a distribution hub.

“If we look at the supply chain here regionally, the speed is anything from getting product back over across the border, not only in Mexico but back into the United States, speed is, to Jason’s point, how quickly we get product out to customers so we have to look at different modes of transportation,” Teixeira said. “Rail, you’ve got the port here, you’ve got airports, so how do we expand on those facilities. Look at different ways of getting product over. Getting product over and use the (inaudible). But that again is a benefit of manufacturing in our region specifically is, we could respond faster. Its good for customers, its good for us as manufacturers to have that speed in the entire supply chain.”