El Paso Expatriate Project: Who They Are, and What That Tells Us
by Rene Leon
Posted on December 14, 2007
With years of experience gained in cities around the country, five El Paso minds have come together to figure out how to put a cork in the city’s so-called “brain drain.”
The El Paso Expatriate Project was organized by city Reps. Susie Byrd and Beto O’Rourke, along with Morris Pittle, owner of Two Ton Creativity, Joseph Villescas, owner of Villescas Research, Media and Instruction, and Diana Ramirez, a City Hall legislative aide. All five returned to El Paso after studying and working in cities across the country.
The Survey’s Findings
The project’s initial survey (link) was launched last Friday; within about a week, nearly 700 responses were returned.
Villescas said the e-mailed questionnaire has received responses from pre-1980 and post-2000 El Paso-area high school graduates, even though the project’s initial target group was those who graduated between 1980 and 2000.
According to a report on the preliminary findings of the survey, the demographics of the respondents – the expats - can be broken down into several profiles: 53 percent of respondents were male, 47 percent were female; 78 percent were born in El Paso; 41 percent are currently married; 31 percent are parents; 74 percent identify themselves as Hispanic, and seven percent are veterans. Also, the report indicates that at least 244 respondents speak a language other than English, with 201 of those people speaking both English and Spanish and 37 others speaking three or more languages.
The report also shows that the majority of expats left after 1990, with 80 percent having lived outside El Paso for more than 10 years. Geographically, the majority of Texas-based expats live in Austin, Dallas and Houston, while Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego are the primary locations for those who are California-based. Washington, D.C., New York and Boston are the main El Paso expat centers on the East Coast.
Nearly one-third of expats, 33 percent, left El Paso upon graduation from high school. Producing the most expat respondents were Cathedral, Eastwood, and Coronado High Schools, while El Paso High School, Loretto Academy, Burges, Austin, JM Hanks and Ysleta High Schools also had a high volume of graduates respond to the survey.
The primary fields of employment for the respondents are education, government, and computer technology, as well as the non-profit, legal and health care sectors. Most of them earn under $100,000 per year – 37.5 percent earn between $50,000 and $100,000 in annual salary, while 39.2 percent earn under $50,000 per year. Just over one-fifth of the respondents earn over $100,000 per year.
While 22.90 percent of respondents indicated they would be interested in starting a new business in El Paso, of the 15 percent who said they own business and the 15 percent who said they are self-employed, only 2.5 percent would be willing to relocate their business to the Sun City.
While most expats, 43 percent, responded “maybe” when asked if they would move back to El Paso, 38 percent said yes, they would move back to El Paso, and 19 percent said no, they would not move back.
Byrd said she is optimistic about the study’s findings. “The fact that we’ve gotten so many people to respond in such a short period of time shows there is a kind of hunger with people our age or younger to come back and do something interesting,” she said. “I think it’s really interesting and very profound to listen to people about what they think of El Paso.”
Byrd believes there are two types of expats: those who are looking to build a comfortable life with a clear career ladder and not much risk; and those who are entrepreneurs, the ones willing to take risks.
While she said she finds nothing wrong with those who have invested in their education and are looking for a stable career path, she feels that El Paso might not be the city to pursue those goals because the city’s wages are not competitive enough.
“But, hopefully, people like that (entrepreneurs) will see opportunity here,” she said. “We have a lot of folks like that in our economy right now, and we need even more of those.”
In response to a previous article (link) about the project, one NPT reader wrote that the project does not merit the use of city tax money. "It's one thing to make an effort like this as a private individual, or a civic or community organization, but for a city councilperson (Byrd) to be wasting City and taxpayer time finding out what's 'wrong' with El Paso....? I'm sorry, I hired her to fix tangible issues that need addressing with our city. Not finding out how to get the COOL people back," he wrote.
But Byrd feels using her office's discretionary funds were justified as the project fills a municipal purpose.
"One of our functions as a municipality is economic development," she said. "I’m very comfortable using our District 2 discretionary salary to start this project," she stated, adding that as the project continues, the group will seek additional funding not from city coffers but from the El Paso community.
While that response was sent to NPT, the responses submitted to the project by participants are varied: some extol the wonders of El Paso, others long to return to the Sun City but cannot due to the lack of competitive wages and career opportunities, and several refuse to return to El Paso because of perceived stagnation among the city’s various political, business and educational institutions.
A compilation of twenty survey responses included in the preliminary findings report can be viewed here.
Also, the project is looking to hear as many responses as possible in person. The group will host an ex-pats holiday party inside the Downtown office of Two Ton Creativity, located on the second floor of 500 N. Oregon, on Sunday Dec. 23.
An Expat Returned
Diana Ramirez is the type of wayward El Pasoan the project is targeting. After completing an internship in the Texas Capitol, Ramirez graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with degrees in government and Spanish literature. She then accepted a job in Washington, D.C., joining the staff of Austin-area Congressman Lloyd Doggett. After a year in that office, she took a position with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, or CHCI.
Two years later, the urge to be around her family in El Paso was too great.
“I wanted to be with my family, but I wouldn’t return until I had a job,” she said. While in town for a Christmas vacation, she began testing the waters for possibly moving back home. She contacted several El Paso professionals she had met while working in Washington and was able to find a job in El Paso’s City Hall as a legislative aide in District 8 Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s office.
“It’s a more satisfying experience at the local level, because I meet with the people that I’m impacting and it’s more of a personal relationship, whereas on the national level people are like tallies,” said Ramirez, who now works for both O’Rourke and Rep. Ann Morgan Lilly. “Here, the people come into my office, I get to know them, they tell me their problems, and if it doesn’t work out, I know they’re going to come back and look for me. They know where I work. They live right down the street. There’s more of a pressure to get things done for them and do it right. I’m held more accountable at the local level because I’m more accessible.”
O’Rourke said he believes experiences gained from studying, working and living in Austin and Washington, D.C., have contributed to Ramirez’s work ethic and ability. “She’s bringing all that back to El Paso to make that a better place,” he stated. He added that not only is it beneficial for to the city to have expatriates like Ramirez return, it is beneficial to the expatriates themselves. “A lot of times, people try to appeal to expats based on some kind of responsibility they feel they have to give back to their community, but I think the stronger appeal is appealing to their self-interest and say, ‘Hey, here’s a chance to get in on the ground floor of some amazing things that are taking off,’ and I think Diana is one of those types of people.”
Working with Ramirez both in City Hall and on the expatriate project, Byrd echoed O’Rourkes statements of the type of work ethic and dedication sought in returning expats.
“I’ve always been a little jealous of Beto and Ann that they have her,” Byrd said. She stated her assistant, Judy, is probably the best on the tenth floor (of City Hall), but she is looking to hire another aide to give her office more support on policy issues and projects.
“I’m trying to recruit my own Diana,” she added.
Ramirez had planned on attending Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service to work in overseas embassies, but after returning to El Paso, her career focus shifted from international service to local government policy and economic development. She now plans on pursuing a graduate business degree and is considering enrolling in UTEP’s graduate business program.
“It was definitely an eye-opening experience (working in Washington), because when I left El Paso I was 18. I didn’t really know much about the professional sector of the city (El Paso) and all the opportunities that it has in terms of setting up your own business. A lot of the industries haven’t really been tapped into. There isn’t a lot of competition. I’m just now realizing that there are so many more opportunities. It’s a different El Paso now, not the mention all the economic growth we’re going to experience in the next few years.”
There is still a possibility that Ramirez will attend graduate school outside of El Paso, but she said once she completes her studies she plans on returning to El Paso, partly because of her involvement with the expatriates project. “I see the impact this project has had on me personally and the potential impact it could have on other people when they see what I think about El Paso,” Ramirez said. “I really have to do what I’m preaching now. If I’m going to work on this and tell people they need to come back, then I need to come back, too.”
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Rene Leon can be contacted at email@example.com, or at 915.351.0605.
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