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Yuma city leaders developing plan for stronger workforce and economy

YUMA, Ariz. — City leaders in Yuma have come together to build a stronger future workforce. They're focusing on higher education, bringing together top industries and students to create better opportunities and a stronger economy.

Yuma County has a population of about 200,000, but many of the workers you see in the area are from Mexico.

ABC15 and Scripps News have launched a special series taking a closer look at life along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Click here for the full article.

Marisol Kelland runs an engineering and construction company in Yuma, and most of her employees cross the border every day for work.

“There are a few issues we have. One is the language gap. We have a lot of employees who speak Spanish. They come in not knowing how to operate heavy equipment, how to finish concrete, etc.,” said Kelland, GCE's president.

Kelland wishes there were more opportunities to help strengthen the workforce, such as evening ESL classes, technology training and other educational programs.

Yuma city leaders lay out plan to strengthen workforce and economy

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“We need engineers here, so I would like to see the curriculum advance further and offer a civil engineering program, because that's probably the engineering field most needed in this town,” Kelland said.

Yuma city leaders are focusing on this particular need. Mayor Douglas Nichols has made it a top priority, Boosting Southwest Initiatives 2020. After years of planning, it is now becoming a reality.

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When asked why he created this system, Nichols responded, “Having a truly strong and complete higher education system is what this initiative is all about — not just to keep people here, but to create an environment where people want to live here.”

Stakeholders learned that a major challenge in the community is obtaining a four-year bachelor’s degree or certificate — in fact, Yuma County is well below the state average — and Elevate Southwest is looking for ways to overcome that.

“We're working through our priorities right now – what are the industry needs, what are the current needs and what are the future needs – so we're putting a plan in place to see how we can help put resources into the education council,” said Jerry Cabrera, president of Elevate Southwest.

A cross-border agreement was signed in October 2023 to bring together higher education institutions in Arizona and Mexico to create additional collaboration opportunities for students and industry, culminating in the Elevate Southwest Innovation Hub, which will be built in Yuma and serve as a hub for hands-on experiences.

“We'll have companies do research and development in the innovation hub and then have them do internships with our students there,” Cabrera said.

Agriculture is one of the driving forces behind Yuma's economy. ABC15 learned that 91% of the leafy greens grown in the winter come from Yuma farms. That's why the city is so focused on training students with the skills they need to enter the workforce – preparing them for today and the future, as many who work in a $3.4 billion industry prepare for retirement.

“Anyone who is involved in agriculture will tell you agriculture today is completely different than it was 20 years ago, and it's going to be completely different 20 years from now than it is today, so we want to be prepared for that,” Mayor Nichols said.

The other industry leader is military and defense, which together accounted for more than $1.7 billion in economic activity.

“We have over 700 Marines in our town that are leaving the United States Marine Corps, they're no longer active duty Marines when they're stationed here, because we have such a large population in our town, and we definitely need that element of our town to grow and have more defense technology and opportunities like that,” Mayor Nichols said.

Mayor Nichols said his plan to make a big push towards economic development will be to focus on making Yuma a place where people want to work and live.

“A lot of people tend to stay in the community that they went to get their degree, so I think by combining the two, we've overcome some obstacles,” Mayor Nichols said.

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