PoliticsImmigration48 Hours on the Border


An Arizona border city is laying the foundation for a strong workforce

A large portion of Yuma's workforce travels to the city daily from across the border in Mexico.
Posted at 2:42 PM, Mar 12, 2024

City leaders in Yuma, Arizona, have come together in an effort to build a stronger future workforce. They have placed a focus on higher education, bringing together top industries and students to create better opportunities and a more robust economy.

Situated along the Arizona-Mexico border, Yuma County has a population of around 200,000. However, a large portion of workers in the area come from Mexico.

Marisol Kelland, who owns an engineering and construction company in Yuma, said most of her employees cross the border every day to get to work.

“There's a couple problems that we have. One is the language gap; we have a lot of Spanish-speaking employees. They come in not knowing how to operate heavy equipment or how to finish concrete and that kind of thing," said Kelland, president of GCE.

Kelland wishes there were more opportunities to help strengthen the workforce, including nighttime ESL classes, technical training and more educational programs.

“We need engineers here. So, we're hoping that the curriculum gets more advanced and they offer a civil engineering program. That's probably the engineering field that's most needed in town," said Kelland.

City leaders in Yuma are paying attention to those specific needs. Mayor Douglas Nicholls is making that a top priority, spearheading the launch of the Elevate Southwest initiative in 2020. It has taken years of planning but is now coming to fruition.

When asked why it was created, Nicholls replied, “Having a real robust and complete higher education system is really what's at the heart of this vision. And it's not so we keep people here, but it's so that we create an environment where people choose to want to live here."

This is what life is like in a border city
Scripps News Phoenix reporter Javier Soto speaks with a resident of Douglas, Arizona.

This is what life is like in a border city

People who live in Douglas, Arizona, have a unique perspective as the country deals with an influx of migrants crossing into the U.S. from Mexico.


Stakeholders learned that a major struggle in the community is attaining a four-year bachelor's degree or certification. In fact, Yuma County is well below the state average in higher education. Elevate Southwest is finding ways to overcome that.

“We're currently working and finishing off the priorities for the industry — their needs, their current needs, and future needs. So, we're putting a plan together in order for them to explore how that's going to help the resources into the education council," said Jerry Cabrera, president of Elevate Southwest.

A cross-border agreement was signed in October of 2023, uniting higher education institutions in Arizona and Mexico to create more collaborative opportunities for students and industries. That will culminate in Elevate Southwest’s Innovation Hub, which will be built in Yuma and become a central location for hands-on experience.

Agriculture is an industry driving Yuma's economy. Scripps News Phoenix learned 91% of leafy greens grown in the U.S. in winter come from Yuma farms. That is why the city is putting so much importance on training students with the skills they need for the workforce. The idea is to prepare them for today and the future, as many in the $3.4 billion industry get ready to retire.

"Anyone in agriculture will tell you the agriculture industry today is nothing like it was 20 years ago, and it will be nothing like it is today, 20 years from now. So, we want to be ready for that," said Nicholls.

Another industry leader is military and defense, representing more than $1.7 billion in economic activity.

“We have 700-plus Marines that leave the United States Marine Corps ... leave, no longer be our active Marines when they're stationed here because we have such a large population. Well, there's definitely a need for that element in our community to grow, and add into defense tech and those kinds of opportunities," said Nicholls.

To make big strides in economic development, Nicholls said the focus is on making Yuma a place where people want to work and live.

"A lot of people tend to stay in the communities where they go to get their degrees and so, having those two things kind of together, I think we've overcome some of our obstacles," said Nicholls.

This story was originally reported by Ashley Paredez at Scripps News Phoenix.