Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- University of Louisiana at Lafayette President Joe Savoie, standing, speaks at a ceremony with Mexican officials, from left, Rames Pech Razo, Ramon Antonio Rodriguez Laynes and Emilio de Ygartua y Monteverde Friday at the Alumni Center in Lafayette.

The University of Louisiana at Lafayette signed an agreement Friday with a university in the Mexican state of Tabasco, opening the door for academic and research partnerships between the two institutions focused on developing engineers for the southern Gulf of Mexico neighbors.

The partnership with the Instituto Tecnológico Superior de Centla in the state of Tabasco is the first of 15 agreements UL-Lafayette will sign with the Mexican state’s major universities, said Mark Zappi, dean of the UL-Lafayette College of Engineering.

Reforms in Mexico have opened up the country’s energy fields for direct foreign investments, and both Mexican business and education officials have visited Lafayette and Louisiana to attract interest. The country’s national oil company, Pemex, is seeking investment partners and technical expertise as it plans to ramp up offshore production.

Mexican officials claim they’ll need thousands of engineers to meet demands in the country over the next five years and universities are seeking partners to help supply the workforce, Zappi said following a signing ceremony with Centla higher education officials Friday at the UL-Lafayette Alumni Center.

As part of the partnerships, undergraduate students from Tabasco will have the chance to transfer to complete their degree at UL-Lafayette. Zappi said the partnership also will enable the creation of a joint master’s program and doctoral program, and provide opportunities for Tabasco engineering faculty to advance their studies and research.

“They don’t feel they have the means to meet the capacity needs,” Zappi said. “They want to use this relationship to meet a goal of having a high percentage of their faculty achieve (doctorate) degrees.”

UL-Lafayette’s engineering program is a model for universities in Tabasco, said Ramón Antonio Rodriguez Laynes, director of the Instituto Tecnológico Superior de Centla. Laynes spoke in Spanish and his comments were translated for the audience of UL-Lafayette officials and members of the media.

Laynes thanked the university for the opportunities that the partnership will provide.

“We consider education an instrument to development” in the country, Laynes said.

The Tabasco universities also hope to learn from UL-Lafayette’s existing partnerships with industry, as well as ways to diversify the state’s economy — lessons Lafayette has mastered, Zappi said.

“UL is ranked by the National Science Foundation as one of the top universities in the country for working with the energy industry. That shows our strong relationship with industry,” Zappi said. “They’re also interested in looking at our model to diversify their economy and how we’ve survived downturns in the industry and how to pick their target (industries) — like for us, it’s been information technology and health care.”

Zappi said he and other university officials will travel to Tabasco later this spring to finalize agreements with the 14 other universities, and similar agreements with schools in the neighboring coastal state of Veracruz also are planned.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.