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The experience of training young people in the city of Leon, Mexico1
María de Ibarrola
         The City of León

León, Guanajuato is the 5th largest city in Mexico (1.3 million) and is located in the geographic center of
the country. Within a three-hour drive are the population and industrial centers of Queretaro, Guadalajara,
Aguascalientes, Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí. This zone is home to approximately 50% of the Mexican
population and produces the same percentage of Mexico's GDP. Mexico City is five hours drive to the
south while Monterrey is ten hours to the north.

Leather tanning and shoe making account for 60% of León's economy, and send deep ripples through the
other sectors. Industrial diversification is an ongoing topic but few results can be seen 2.

         The local labour structure

          An analysis of the labour structure and its recent economic development has led to paying
special attention to the footwear industry and reinforced the methodological decision of assessing the
space (territory) in the category of “old regional industrialisation”, whose main actors are striving to build
an “industrial district”. Various indicators show the importance of the personnel employed by the
footwear industry: it has accounted for 23 to 28% of all the city’s active population in the last ten years
and from 67 to 73% of local industry. From another point of view, just the history of three or four
generations through the 20th century points to the important presence of footwear workers in local
families and the recurrence of such activities in family economies. The diversity of the footwear industry
is distinctive in the city, a feature that becomes increasingly evident in any study of local labour
structures. This diversity is expressed in many aspects: the size of economic units and their production
capacity, from small “picas” or family workshops with five to ten persons, that turn out 50 pairs of shoes
a week, to large plants employing more than 500 workers with an output of thousands of pairs a week; the
formality or informality of companies in complying with national tax and labour legislation; their mutual
interrelations, as many of them outsource part of their production to subordinate enterprises. In footwear
and leather manufacture, automated work in large plants coexists with mixed systems of manual labour
and some machinery in small workshops, and highly artisan crafts in private homes, performed mainly by
women that alternate such tasks with their domestic chores and responsibilities. This heterogeneity is also
apparent in the variety of products –more than 17 types of shoes, differentiated according to gender, age,
profession or activity – and their quality –from cheap or popular to the most exotic- and the diversity of
channels used for marketing them, the identification of equally specialised consumer niches whose
demands are clearly reflected in the nature and volume of the goods produced. Also to be noted are the
different reactions to the crisis brought about by globalisation and the opening up of borders to footwear
made in other countries: the modernisation of industries, the emergence of new economic concepts and
job profiles or, in the opposite extreme, complete ignorance of this new international situation.

         The moment

         The period analysed, from 1990 to 2000, (the nineteen nineties), is marked by economic and
educational policy decisions that have very special influence on the education-labour interaction in the
city context and induce fundamental transformations in it. On the one hand, the signature of the Free
Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada, of various bilateral agreements with Latin American
countries, and the accession of Mexico to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
(OECD), that is to say, the country’s full and explicit incorporation into the globalised economy, has had
a deep effect on the city’s principal and centuries-old industry. It has likewise promoted the development
of other branches of its economy an the emergence of new economic approaches. The city’s future
development options are laid out: it can either renew and enrich its traditional industry and promote other
aspects for the orthodox building of an industrial district, or it can diversify its economy and become a

  From a text originally published by Cinterfor in Spanish in its series “Herramientas para la
transformación” (Tools for transformation) under the title of “Local development and training. An overall
view of the occupational training of young people”. It was adapted to underline more clearly its
relationship with the Community Based Training (CBT).
  This part from the web site of the City.


regional centre for various specialised services, like medical, financial, commercial and cultural services,
which requires a large infrastructure: hotels, restaurants, local and regional transportation, public security.

On the other hand, the agreement about federalisation (decentralisation) of education, subscribed in 1992,
triggered the capacity of the different Mexican States for embarking upon significant educational
undertakings, freed from the rigid controls of the Federal Government. In the case of the State of
Guanajato, where the city of our study is located, the decentralisation policy crystallised in 1999 with the
establishment of eight educational regions, one of them in the León municipality, which gave it
considerable leeway in basic and intermediate education decisions. Very noticeable and notorious are the
results of such policies in the city, that include new institutions and training modes, closely connected
with the innovative notions of lifelong education, recognition and certification of occupational
competencies acquired outside the schoolroom, flexible educational opportunities for young people that
work and study, close interaction between schools and enterprises, an impressive proliferation of private
intermediate and higher education institutes, and training and consulting offices that offer support to
many enterprises for achieving higher quality levels in accordance with international standards.

          In the period under review, the principal actors in the city began to recognise clearly and
explicitly the importance that coded knowledge, acquired scientifically and in an institutional manner, has
for production and economic development. This was added to the importance awarded to increasingly
longer basic schooling (9 years), decreed as compulsory throughout Mexico by the Federal Government
in 1999. In the city of León – where average school attendance has been historically lower than in the rest
of the country – the increase of school registration figures has been remarkable at all levels.

          No less important for choosing this very recent period has been the possibility of having very
complex and detailed national, state and local data from the 1990 and 2000 censuses. There is in the City
of León a recently created state entity, Infoguanajato, that has carried out a number of municipal surveys
facilitating knowledge of the local context. In this connection, the Municipal Economic Development
Office has also carried out an important task of systematisation and dissemination of local economic

         Additionally, the period is sufficiently long for recording some milestones, namely: a) economic
events like the 1994 national crisis; b) constitutional renewal of local authorities (every three years) and
state authorities (1993 and 1999), that periodically affect the management of the economy and education,
c) the declared intentions of actors and their actual attainments. Both during the period under review and
the duration of this study, interesting changes can be observed regarding the economic development of
the city and the occupational training strategies adopted. They all contribute to avoid the temptation of
assuming that decisions made early in the decade, or at some concrete point in it, evolved upwards in a
linear way.

1. Preferential view of the young

          The second point is the need to justify why young people are the most significant age group for
analysing these interactions. The research project selected two five-year groups of ages 15 to 19 and 20 to
24. Special attention was paid to those in the period of their life when they undergo school occupational
training. However, the results of the study – particularly those referring to non-school training-, suggest
that attention should be paid to other groups, sometimes year by year, like for instance teenagers that
finish primary school and discontinue their studies.

          The relative nature of the concept of youth is clearly established in the social sciences, its terms
of reference and the period of life identified as youth. The roles assigned to those belonging to this
category, the rights and obligations they have, depend on different determinants and limitations that vary
according to time and place, geographical and socio-cultural circumstances. The dynamics of
demography, the extension of people’s life expectancy and the predominant structures in a person’s
labour life, have deeply modified the concept of youth. The criteria prevailing in advanced countries have
even prolonged the concept of childhood up to 18 (in the struggle against child labour), and that of youth
up to 29.

        In Mexico, there are some contradictions among legal criteria in the demarcation of areas: a) the
end of compulsory schooling (nine grades) is towards 14 or 15 (although there is no mandatory age for


remaining at school); b) there is a ban on work before the age of 14; c) persons come officially of age
after their 18th birthday. Contradictions are even greater between formal aspects and concrete social
practices: the only truly compulsory education, the primary cycle, is completed –not by everybody- at age
12, although many youngsters past 15 have frequently not finished it. This discrepancy leaves an
important vacant period in the life of teenagers, from the end of schooling to legal access to work. On the
other hand, many children under 14 or even 12 have already started to work or, by contrast, there are
requirements or even tacit regulations demanding labour experience before access to a job, which delays
the entry of young people in various ways in certain enterprises.

          Current problems of young people regarding education and labour tend to be viewed from two
angles: a) on the one hand, in the developed “northern countries”, the constantly higher schooling levels
of young people are a conspicuous fact. Recent studies have identified an education and skills surplus in
the new generations which, however, negates the supposedly positive relationship between higher
schooling and better levels of labour and income. Among the young people of those countries identity
crises are triggered by transformations in schools (longer years of compulsory education, the negative
reaction of students against schools as confining institutions, and their consequent behaviour), and by
their relationship with work (delayed access to labour and open youth unemployment, increasing
difficulties for getting a job, lower income, precarious employment, a shorter active life vis-à-vis longer
life expectancy, etc. b) By contrast, in the “southern countries” there are large groups of young people
that have been left out of school and out of work, even in the informal sector of the economy. It is
essential that they get priority attention and teaching and institutional alternatives. Some say they have to
be offered a “second chance” (Jacinto y Gallart, 1998), considering that their first chance (school) never
materialised, and in order to solve their problem of social exclusion.

          It is quite possible that in our societies of the south, - “developing” or “underdeveloped”,
intermediate or traditional societies-, as they have been variously called along the years, the two
phenomena may coexist, as we do not yet know their actual scope and interrelations. It is also possible
that for some the promise may be fulfilled of higher incomes and better working conditions as a result of
longer schooling, plus all the extra values for many young people that had not formerly risen so high.

         In these countries there is a “window of demographic opportunities”, by virtue of the current
configuration of the age ladder, according to which the population will consist mainly of young people of
productive age, and their economic dependents will not be more numerous. On the one hand birth rates
have gone down, so that the lower rungs of the ladder are not so crowded, and on the other the number of
retired persons is still not so large as in developed countries. Hence the importance of providing young
people with the necessary training to face the challenges of work and production.

          The educational policies of the decade, generalised internationally, have prioritised the need to
give the young a sound grounding during the first years of their life. Compulsory schooling has been
extended (to nine years in Mexico) and school curricula are eminently basic and generalised. The moment
of vocational choice has been postponed, and various options of secondary and higher training are offered
as an alternative to university education. On the other hand, the transformations in the realm of work, and
a prolonged life expectancy versus shorter years of labour activity, have made of a lifelong education the
main mechanism to deal with such deep changes.

2. Knowledge as the support of production and the organisation of work

         The backbone of an analysis of occupational training is the knowledge underpinning production
and the organisation of work. A basic assumption of this research project is that underlying all economic
progress there is a store of knowledge (and “beliefs”, say anthropologists that study learning in the
disciplinary light of ideologies about work), based on the many natural and human elements that come
together and drive man’s labour and production. This type of knowledge has been gradually incorporated
into three large areas of man’s capacity for work: a) in a predominantly cumulative manner, into all
production machines and tools for processing raw materials (recently including man-made materials); b)
in an interpretative manner, all matters pertaining to man’s organisation of work, the theories and
proposals about it; c) in a tacit way, the know-how, abilities, values and attitudes of workers and the
micro-culture of persons sharing the same occupation.


         Recent studies have underlined the difference between coded and tacit knowledge, a complex
ramification of previous distinctions between theory and practice, between knowledge acquired
empirically or through systematic reflection. The term “know-how” has also acquired renewed value at
different social and cultural levels. For instance the “know-how” of workers, that also refers to experience
and the knowledge now identified as tacit. All these kinds of knowledge are mutually related and
unevenly distributed among the populations of the regions and within each population group. From the
viewpoint of enterprises and productive units the concept has emerged of occupational competencies
(qualifications) that have become important enough to determine public training policies in the labour and
educational areas of many countries, Mexico among them.

          In the case of the shoe manufacturing industry of the city of León, for example, nearly all the
modern machinery and equipment are foreign made, while the organisation of work in artisan shops (that
have often become factories) and manual work are deeply rooted in the population, after more than three
hundred years of those trades in the town. The existence of widespread and broad tacit knowledge is
evident among many specialised people in one or several branches of production, from entrepreneurs
founders of companies of various sizes, to unskilled workers and experts along production lines. It is
knowledge widely shared by city dwellers in general, to the extent that the idea of a “shoemaking gene”
has been put forth, in a picturesque biological metaphor. This tacit and very specialised knowledge is in
sharp opposition to the scarce schooling of most workers in the industry, employers included. Three
institutions have been created recently (after 1971) that systematise and store this knowledge in a coded
way - both at technical and organisational level-, and transfer it deliberately. However, the clear-cut
stratification of the training offered by these centres is surprising, as well as the hierarchical level of the
workers attending them. One of them, the Research and Advisory Centre on Leather and Footwear
(Spanish acronym CIATEC), created by the Federal Government in 1978, trains middle and upper
managers and conducts scientific research in production. The second one, the National College of
Vocational and Technical Education (CONALEP), also a federal body that has schools all over the
country, provides formal training for young people as future supervisors and middle managers. The third
one, the Centre for Research and Educational and Cultural Promotion (CIPEC), is a local institution set
up privately, with employers’ and government support, and it trains workers. Some university careers
were recently introduced on footwear design and management, in the new higher education institutions
created in the ‘nineties. Simultaneously, national technical standards were adopted for occupational
competencies in the footwear industry, which was one of the first sectors to achieve that in the country.
Employers in the sectoral chamber have agreed to make the necessary efforts to include new forms of
organising production that have already been accepted internationally, like “toyotism”, or some concrete
strategies like total quality, kan bam, just-in-time, the five “S’s”, and are endeavouring to obtain
international certification for their products and processes. All these efforts are at the base of interesting
innovations in occupational training strategies in the city, and of the interaction private and public actors,
the government, enterprises and educational institutions.

3. Training for work

         The basic principle that occupational training is not confined to what the educational system can
provide is an easily accepted conclusion, but research has not looked into it sufficiently. Most researchers
favour the traditional type of training because it is easier to take school certificates or the number of
grades completed as approximate indicators of the knowledge and skills required for the performance of a

         In this project, to begin with we have defined analytically three possible areas in which the
transfer of knowledge takes place. For each one we have identified the main actors and institutional
strategies adopted.

         3.1 Learning in the school system, particularly in the city’s public and private teaching institutes
at secondary and higher level. Plentiful data are available and were generously supplied by those in
charge, regarding the educational offer (by levels, modes and careers; new institutes in the city; main
strategies and links with work) and demand (average schooling of the city population; school registration
by educational levels and modes; schooling by age groups; school attendance or non-attendance of young
people). These data show that in the year 2000, 77.3% of the children of school age were doing pre-
school courses; 95% primary grades; 81.1% secondary school; 29.7% intermediate courses and 19.2%


higher courses. During the decade, increased satisfaction of the educational demand was really
considerable at all levels, having reached 30 percent points in some cases.

          The city’s school system has undergone some interesting transformations, which in part may
indicate the interest of the government and local entrepreneurs in responding to new economic trends. As
from 1992, the city and the state have paid special attention to the education of young people and working
adults through the creation of new institutes: the State of Guanajato College of Scientific and
Technological Studies (CECYTEG) in 1992; the videobachelor, Advanced Bachelor’s Degree in Higher
Studies (SABES), in 1996; the State Institutes of Occupational Training, the Continuous Education
Institute and the Inter-university Knowledge Centre (the two latter ones merged towards the end of 2001).
These bodies are very important although student attendance is still limited. Besides, on the insistence of
the city’s entrepreneurs, the State and Federal Governments created the León Technological University in
1993. But the remarkable growth of private intermediate and higher education agencies, and the
inclination of young people towards preparatory studies and administrative careers, also reflect the
dynamic situation of educational bodies, and the deep-seated preference of young people and their
families for some specific types of schooling, along the traditional lines of division between manual and
intellectual labour.

3.2 The second area is learning at work places. We specifically looked for deliberate instruction at work
centres, that proved to be very scarce in our survey of the footwear industry, as only 12% of workers
reported having taken some training course inside or outside their company in the year preceding the
interview. The question was included in all interviews, and the replies always had some excuse about why
such training never took place. Public and private agencies offering training and advisory services (that
have been growing in number), were identified, as well as training contents, spaces, strategies and
duration. On the other hand, it was evident from the beginning that attention had to be paid to training
modes and mechanisms at work centres, that were of different kinds: a) apprenticeship schemes that still
survive in the industry, via the formal recognition of apprentices (called “zorritas” in workers’ slang).
(51% of interviewed workers reported having played that role between the ages of 6 and 14, regardless of
their schooling or current labour situation); b) informal on-the-job or experience training (between 50%
and 64% of workers surveyed reported having learned from some colleague or having taught another
worker). These and other approaches are very significant for identifying, analysing and explaining the
wealth of learning relationships that were uncovered in the shoe industry.

        Work places are intensively educational spaces, and in labour relationships there are always
pedagogic links among workers. Supervisors and employers also play an important teaching role by
promoting such links and taking active part in them.

          Through such non-formal or informal relationships and training systems, embodied in labour
relationships and in clear preference to deliberate instruction, the life story of several young workers
shows how they took their first steps in the industry, learned to perform in various work posts and to
handle the new machinery that most economic units seem to consider the best way of “modernising”
industry, rather than through organisational changes. Non-formal training strategies are also more
attractive for entrepreneurs: travelling; attending national and international fairs; lectures offered by their
Chamber. But tacit knowledge and labour learning situations have their limits and not only in work
performance: workers make scarce use of reading and writing and have limited access to new
developments; they also lack information about working conditions, aspects relating to labour
organisation and their basic rights, elements of safety and hygiene at work, ecology, and respect for the
natural environment. They even lack motivation to try some other kind of work, as their job has the
advantage of being traditional and well known.

         A significant number of firms, particularly small ones, continue to use very old machinery and
the same processes as years before, unaware of the global challenges facing their sector’s economy, and
not realising that better training of their workers could be a solution. In the case of some of our
interviewees, the tacit knowledge they have interiorised also includes deep rooted vices that could only be
remedied by a complete cultural change.

         Training takes place in the context of some very difficult labour situations and movements. Work
posts are extremely stratified; there is frequent manpower rotation among work centres (including
returning to the same factory after a period of absence for personal reasons, or because firms have
changed legal name or vanished overnight for economic motives); labour recruitment is done through


friends and relatives; employers ask for little or no documentation, take little heed of the schooling
required by contracts, even elementary education. At some point we must mention the “black legend” or
working conditions: long hours, overcrowding, high noise pollution, lack of minimal protection, labour
accidents, safety and hygiene problems, use of toxic materials, non-compliance with even minimal
regulations, that have always been in the background of a significant part of footwear production units,
although we could not verify how far such conditions prevailed.

         3.3 The third area is that of training delivered in other social environments, categorised by civil
society organisations and covering a wide conceptual wealth. Organisations of different types were
identified, not all of them pursuing the kind of “civic education” that characterises new civil society
organisations. Some of them were rather along the lines of private charitable or assistance associations;
others clearly had economic class interests. Consequently, a more adequate identification of these
organisations was needed, and a map of the relationships between them. We attempted to determine two
dimensions of the training they dispensed: a) what interest do they have in occupational training for
young people?, and b) what occupational training do they provide for persons that have been excluded
form the educational system and from labour?

         In all cases we tried to establish the nature, orientation and contents of the training offered, how
it was distributed among the young population of the city, and what effects it had. In this way we
analysed the role given to school and non-school occupational training for the shoe industry, but we also
obtained some approximations about occupational training for other economic sectors. We also did a
follow up of graduates from levels four and five of the city’s school system, to find out their recent
destination and the role played by their level of schooling.

          One of the most interesting points for discussion emerging from the results of our research is the
relationship between school-type knowledge, coded knowledge transferred deliberately, and tacit
knowledge about production. Are they opposing or complementary sorts of knowledge? Or perhaps they
are mutually hindering, and the nature of one implies resistance to the other? According to our survey,
most young workers that were interviewed (who had little schooling and a great deal of tacit training,
sometimes acquired since childhood), express no desire to get further schooling, but are interested in
some preferably informal training based on labour links, enabling them to improve their income and
working conditions. This is a fact that research has already proved: only a higher level of schooling (in
this instance the ceiling appears to be secondary education) promotes the search for further education and
deliberate training. The young people of the city with higher levels of schooling clearly move away from
operational work and even from the shoe industry. However, they are still contributing to the
modernisation of the sector and the creation of new jobs related to it: footwear marketing, customs
experts, international footwear counsellors, etc.


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