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JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) — Millions of workers worldwide have learned the value of digital skills as the COVID-19 pandemic forces them to work from home.

Now, a partnership of government, academic and industry leaders want maquiladora workers in the state of Chihuahua to become digitally savvy and draw the attention of high-tech companies currently off-shoring software design to places like India and Asia.

“We have some of the most important design companies already here, and other maquilas are beginning to incorporate (software) design into their processes. More than assembly-hand labor, they’re now requiring specialized workers with digital skills,” said Eduardo Castillo, director of Juarez’s new Center for Artificial Intelligence.

Funded by the state of Chihuahua and grants from Microsoft, the center located near the Bermudez Industrial Park this month inaugurated its building and is getting ready to go online with the first cadre of 296 students.

The pupils are engineers and technical workers picking up additional skills in data analysis, cloud computing, blockchain storage and internet-of-things devices. They’re also university students tasked with the long-term enticing and training of Juarez high school students into robotics, computer science and programming.

Such a skilled labor force is likely to draw major investments in the region by international high-tech companies in the future, and leaders on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border are excited.

“The development of this AI Center initiative is a tremendous step forward as we look to train and recruit the workers of the future,” said Jon Barela, CEO of El Paso’s Borderplex Alliance. “We are seeing a number of technology companies looking at our region to eventually bring jobs and opportunities for our residents. We are very excited.”

Juarez’s new Center for Artificial Intelligence (Courtesy photo)

Chihuahua Gov. Javier Corral said the transition from traditional to high-tech manufacturing is a logical next step as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement goes into effect.

His administration is pitching in $3.3 million — including the building — for the Juarez center and other capital for technology training in four other cities in the state. In addition to teaching, the governor hopes companies and universities use the meeting rooms and shops at these centers for team projects that will result in software design and patents.

Castillo said the AI Center’s board of directors includes maquiladora executives.

“We want industry to tell us what type of labor force they need so they can develop better products and be more competitive worldwide. This link (in the board of directors) will better guide us to provide workers the abilities that industry will need from them,” he said.

Microsoft invests in Juarez

Javier Murillo, founder and CEO of the AI Center, says the institution has received two grants from Microsoft and is expecting a third one.

Javier Murillo, founder and CEO of Juarez’s Center for Artificial Intelligence (Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

The first grant went toward developing a robotics program for high school students. The second was to teach Python programming language to university students.

The third has to do with bringing work teams from industries or entrepreneurs to work on projects with Microsoft software and support.

The grants are part of Microsoft’s $1.1 billion commitment to developing digital technology in Mexico, and Juarez is one of three cities where the Washington state-based multinational wants to foster regional data centers.

“We want to equip every Mexican with the skills and technology required for the jobs of tomorrow. As such, we are investing on new training labs and skilling programs for today’s and tomorrow’s workforce,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said when he announced the investment last February.

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