A first-generation college graduate stands for recognition during UTEP’s commencement in May. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

When Paulina del Pozo graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso with a degree in industrial engineering, she knew she would have to leave her hometown in order to start her career.

“I started my job search three to four months before graduating and started going to the career fairs and that’s when I really noticed there weren’t that many local companies at the fairs and there weren’t that many opportunities here,” del Pozo said. “That’s when I was, ‘Wow, I’m going to have to go.’”

Although she graduated from the College of Engineering, one of the colleges with the highest enrollments at UTEP, del Pozo said there were few opportunities that were hiring and paying well. She now finds herself employed in Fort Worth, more than 600 miles away from her hometown.

“There’s a lot of competition for engineering positions but not enough positions and not enough large companies,” del Pozo said. “In El Paso the starting salary was probably around a fourth of my starting salary (here) in Fort Worth.”

The issue of El Paso graduates leaving the city for work isn’t new and sometimes is a known reality for El Pasoans even before they leave high school. Referred to by some as a “brain drain,” the migration hinders El Paso’s ability for economic growth, local officials said.

“If we don’t address the issue of brain drain and cultivating a robust talent pool, then we miss out on opportunities to sell our community to the businesses and to the developers that we want to attract,” said Bianca Cervantes, the communications director at Workforce Border Solutions. “So if we don’t address this, we’re just going to keep setting ourselves backwards.”

UTEP officials declined El Paso Matters’ request for a comment or interview for this story.

According to Census Bureau estimates, El Paso County saw 56,000 more people move out to other U.S. counties than moved in between 2010 and 2020. The data does not distinguish between people with and without college degrees.

And the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the number of jobs in Texas increased almost twice as fast as in El Paso over the past decade.

For many graduates, having to leave El Paso is a personal sacrifice.

“This is where my family is,” del Pozo said. “I did want to come back home but there was nothing available for me at an entry level and again, it would be a huge salary cut.”

The average weekly wage in El Paso in 2020 was $823, about two-thirds of the national average. El Paso wage growth has been more sluggish than the nation as a whole for more than a decade, federal statistics show.

El Paso native Sabrina Núñez graduated from UTEP with a degree in English and American literature in 2015. She completed her master’s degree in advertising and public relations in 2018 and wanted to pursue a job in public relations.

“A lot of people, when I was in high school, were talking about how El Paso didn’t have as many opportunities for the liberal arts in comparison to STEM (science, technology, engineering or mathematics) careers,” Núñez said.

According to June 2021 Workforce data, the top three sectors for employment in El Paso were government, trade/transportation/utilities and health/education services.

Tom Fullerton, a UTEP economist, said the local economy does support graduates.

“The local economy supports college graduates from all of the regional universities: UTEP, NMSU (New Mexico State University), UACJ (Universidad Autonoma De Ciudad Juárez), and ITESM-CJ (Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey),” Fullerton said in an emailed response.

“With nearly 15,000 registered businesses in El Paso County, plus another 3,600 in Doña Ana County, plus several thousand in Ciudad Juárez, private enterprise in the Borderplex is almost always recruiting new graduates from those 4 campuses as well as attracting applicants from many other universities in Canada, the USA, and Mexico.”

Fullerton also said it’s not an issue for graduates from regional universities to be recruited outside the city and region’s markets.

“It simply reflects the fact that all four of these campuses manage highly competitive degree plans and attract many recruiters from multinational corporations and government agencies located throughout North America,” Fullerton said. “If local college alumni were not being recruited by out-of-region companies and public sector agencies, that really would be a problem.”

Núñez said she couldn’t find employment in her field of public relations in her hometown.

“There were virtually no public relations jobs and a lot of the marketing jobs that were advertised were very sales focused, which is not what I wanted to do,” Núñez said. “There were so many more opportunities in the bigger cities (like) Dallas and Austin.”

For many graduates, finding employment is not only necessary to support themselves but to pay a recurring bill: student debt.

“It’s over $150,000,” Núñez said about her remaining student debt. Federal student loan repayment has been paused because of the ongoing pandemic, butNúñez estimates she typically pays off $1,000 a month.

“It’s definitely brought me a lot of stress but I’ve been able to make peace with it,” she said.

Since leaving, Núñez said she is able to make $15,000 annually more in Austin than in El Paso as a senior publicist.

However, she would have preferred to have stayed in El Paso because of the cheaper cost of living.

Núñez said she wished she had more conversations and guidance about financial literacy before she decided to take out thousands of dollars in loans to pay for school.

“I really wish that there had been more education in high school about borrowing money,” Núñez said. “I felt really pressured to start taking out debt or taking out loans because no one explained to me what my other options were.”

Rosemary Castro, who graduated from UTEP in 2008 with a bachelor’s in history, agrees.

With over $90,000 in student debt, Castro said that not only was she unaware about her options, but said loans were also advertised positively.

“Loans, basically, were presented as financial aid, so you don’t have to worry,” Castro said. “You go through the contracts and are aware that you’re going to have to pay it back but you have the six-month grace period. So it’s like, ‘Don’t worry, because it won’t even take you six months to find a job, like, you’ll find a job, and it’s going to pay you well, and you’ll be able to pay off these loans quick.’”

But for Castro, who completed school in 2011 after receiving her master’s in public history at New Mexico State University, the U.S. economy was in a slow state of recovery after the 2008 financial crisis and Great Recession.

Rosemary Castro received a master’s degree from New Mexico State University in 2011. (Photo courtesy of Rosemary Castro)

Castro said her dream job was to work in the education department at a museum but she could not land a permanent position in El Paso.

“It was like ‘what’s next?’” Castro said. “So it was like maybe there might be better luck in cities that have more museums.”

After spending a year in El Paso searching for work, Castro moved to Seattle and found no luck there, either. A year later she moved to Austin and became a social worker.

Now with over $90,000 in student debt, Castro said she is paying for a degree that she hasn’t been able to use.

“For me, there has been that anxiety of living with that pressure of this huge number that I owe and I look at it and it’s like, that could have been a house,” Castro said.

“Being able to save and have a safety net was hard to do (because) everything that I probably would have been able to save was going to student loans. It’s stressful knowing that if some big emergency would happen, and I lost my job, that I didn’t have any real safety net.”

At Workforce Solutions Borderplex, Cervantes said they are currently working to address the lack of knowledge about financial literacy and career readiness.

“We have a youth and career outreach program that was running as a pilot in the past two years that is now about to become permanent statewide because it was so impactful,” Cervantes said.

“The purpose of this program is to facilitate the difficulty of, or even the uncertainty of, what high school seniors should do upon graduating and what a college graduate should do upon graduating, or what their options are. One of those program topics that we are highly focused on is the aspect of financial literacy.”

Known as “Grind Talk TV,” the program features nine episodes that will be streamed in high schools and colleges.

Cervantes said they also have been producing a “Hot Jobs” brochure that lists “hot” jobs with greater employment opportunities versus “cool” occupations that are decreasing in growth. This year some jobs on the “hot” list include computer systems analysts, detectives and librarians. Some of the “cool” jobs include file clerks, data entry keyers and floral designers.

“Obviously you can do whatever you desire and can be successful in whatever you do, however, there are positions that you want to just be careful of and understand that there’s going to be higher competition locally and of course across the country too,” Cervantes said.

Cervantes said programs like these are important for students to access, but also are essential for the economic growth of El Paso.

“We recognize the need to retain our talent because if talent keeps leaving we’ll see the impact on the economy by not having a robust talent pool,” Cervantes said. “In order for new businesses and economic development to happen and new companies to come to El Paso, that attraction is important.”

As an El Paso native and graduate who has had to leave, del Pozo said she hopes the city can expand its markets.

“I think that there’s a lot of talent here in El Paso and there’s a lot of graduates,” del Pozo said. “I know a lot of friends of mine that are in Dallas, Austin, San Antonio (and) that’s the popular big cities but honestly El Paso is pretty big. We should have bigger companies to retain these people and have the opportunity for career growth.”

Castro said she would have loved to have stayed in El Paso but felt that there was no other option.

“A lot of us do it and it isn’t always easy leaving family behind, it isn’t always an easy choice,” she said. “But sometimes it’s needed.”

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.