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Even Elite Graduates Face Bleak Job Picture in Mexico : Economy: Monterrey school's degree used to be ticket to solid future. But peso's collapse has changed that.

MEXICO IN CRISIS. The Human Cost of the Peso's Fall. Second in a series

April 24, 1995|JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MONTERREY, Mexico — Alejandra Zambala spent the past five years at the Monterrey Institute of Technology, the educational bastion of the free-market thought that swept Mexico in the early 1990s, preparing for her place in a bright future of international trade and private enterprise.

Within days of her graduation in December, the peso was devalued, igniting an economic collapse that makes that future look far away indeed.

Now Zambala is trying to make ends meet on a monthly salary of 2,000 pesos (about $320)--the same amount as her pocket money when she was a student. Except that then, before the devaluation, her allowance was worth closer to $600.

Zambala's parents still help out, but they have their own troubles: The devaluation has practically doubled the dollar debt they owe suppliers of their Tijuana bakery chain.

And Zambala counts herself lucky. At least she has a job at the campus multimedia center; most of her 1,659 former classmates are unemployed. Government figures released Wednesday show that unemployment is higher, especially here in Mexico's north, than it has been since 1987.

"The percentage of people in my graduating class who are working is very low," says the 22-year-old, shaking her dark bob. "We are in a very critical moment."

For Zambala's class and the Class of 1995, the economic crisis has made graduation from this elite university less an achievement than a moment of reckoning. It will probably mark their lives and careers in the same way the Great Depression or the Vietnam War left its stamp on a generation of Americans.

These students' hopes were nurtured as the North American Free Trade Agreement was negotiated and their country joined a bevy of impressive international trade organizations. They were going to transform family businesses into global enterprises or be snatched up by corporations eagerly expanding into international markets.

Nowhere did such hopes soar higher than here at "El Tec," which is among Mexico's largest, most prestigious--and most expensive--private universities. Under former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a degree from El Tec was virtually a passport to a well-paid job with a solid future. But those dreams have been dashed for the classes of '94 and '95.

Mexican undergraduate degrees take five years to complete, so this year's graduates started college shortly after Salinas began his six-year term with promises that the changes he was about to make would put Mexico "in the vanguard of the worldwide transformation."

"We practically entered with Salinas," Zambala says. "It was all moments of triumph. My parents' income kept rising. We all thought when we graduated we would only have to say: 'Here I am. Take advantage of me.' "

Top-notch students come from all over Mexico to study at this shaded campus of modernistic buildings. The Monterrey Institute of Technology was founded half a century ago by northern industrialists distressed at the increasingly socialist bent of Mexican public education. They built a university modeled after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and science, engineering and professional administrative skills are emphasized over the theoretical and ideological courses that still predominate in many of Mexico's public universities.

Students here are taught that their success will depend on their ability to do their jobs rather than on the family and friendship ties that traditionally determine success and status in Mexico.

El Tec is a ticket to upward mobility based on merit. It contrasts sharply with both the virtually free public universities, where mass education often leaves students ill-prepared for the job market, and the incestuously tiny Mexico City private schools where diversity means contemporaries from various country clubs.

Tec alumni--such as Federico Sada, the CEO of Mexico's largest company, Vitro Corp., and Ernesto Martens, chosen to rescue the troubled Aeromexico airline--run the day-to-day operations of major Mexican corporations. Others are the force behind small businesses that are the backbone of Mexican industry.

The philosophy of El Tec meshed perfectly with the free-market reforms that pulled Mexico from a protected economy of high-import tariffs and stiff investment restrictions into global competition for both goods and capital.

"Just a semester ago, all we heard was how Mexico was advancing," says Veronica Ramos, a 21-year-old industrial engineering student who will graduate in December. "I was optimistic about finding a good job. Sending me here has been a sacrifice for my family because, in Mexico, this is the best."

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