MEXICO CITY — In an aggressive bid to move beyond low-wage factory jobs and toward an entrepreneurial economy, Mexico is producing graduates in engineering and technology at rates that challenge its international rivals, including its number one trade partner, the United States.
President Felipe Calderon recently boasted that Mexico graduates 130,000 engineers and technicians a year from universities and specialized high schools, more than Canada, Germany, or even Brazil, which has nearly twice the population of Mexico.
But it remains an open question whether the soaring number of skilled graduates will transform Mexico into the ‘‘country of engineers’’ that Calderon envisions, or they go to work in low-level managerial jobs at assembly plants owned by foreigners — jobs that have come to define their profession.
‘‘This idea that Mexico is a country of engineers is a mirage,’’ said Manuel Gil Anton, an expert in education policy at Colegio de Mexico.
Gil compared Mexico to a Starbucks franchise — its workers are able to deliver a fast cup of coffee but cannot create by themselves the business model and products that make Starbucks a global brand. He said most engineers in Mexico become underachievers, not inventors or entrepreneurs. ‘‘They turn knobs,’’ he said.
But this may change as more engineers graduate and if incoming President Enrique Peña Nieto can make good on his promise to remove impediments to growth and turn Mexico into a kind of warm-weather Canada.
Many analysts who study emerging economies — such as the MISTs (as Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey are known) — say that Mexico is in fact laying the groundwork.
Mexico already posts a trade surplus with the United States and is building communications satellites and corporate jets.
In the past decade, Mexico has doubled the number of its public two-year colleges and four-year universities.
During Calderon’s six years in office, even as the drug war raged and the recession pushed millions of Mexicans into poverty, the government built 140 new schools of higher learning, with 120 of them dedicated to science and engineering. Capacity was expanded at 96 other public campuses.
Private colleges — such as the pricey but popular Monterrey Institute of Technology with its 31 campuses in 25 cities — are experiencing a boom.
‘‘Mexico is now one of the top producers of engineers in the world,’’ said Oscar Suchil, director of graduate affairs at the public National Polytechnic Institute, where 60 percent of its 163,000 students are studying engineering and paying just $12 a semester in tuition.
These aspirational students, many from humble backgrounds, want desperately to build something — for themselves and their country — and join Mexico’s growing middle class, which now accounts for half of the population.
In a courtyard of the engineering library at the National Polytechnic Institute here sat a slightly stressed Alejandro Landin Cruz, 20, surrounded by graph paper scrawled with logarithms, the keypad of his Casio scientific calculator worn down by his flying fingertips.
‘This idea that Mexico is a country of engineers is a mirage.’
Landin was cramming for his applied statistics exam, which he predicted he would ace. ‘‘I really like math,’’ he said.
Like most of his classmates, Landin comes from a working-class family. He pays a pittance to attend what many here proudly call ‘‘the MIT of Mexico.’’
Under Calderon, the number of college scholarships doubled. The government gives Landin $65 a month — which helps him pay for bus fare, clothes, school supplies, and food. His dream is to be a transport engineer and calculate the weight and placement of cargo containers on ships for the Mexican customs agency.
‘‘I feel like we can reach the same level as anyone in the world, because this is a seriously competitive school,’’ he said.
Mexico is now competing with the United States in the number of undergraduate degrees in engineering.
The United States awarded 83,000 undergraduate degrees in engineering in 2011, according to the American Society for Engineering Education. UNESCO said that Mexico issued 75,575 undergraduate diplomas in engineering in 2010, the most recent statistic available.