Thursday, June 9, 2011 | 2 a.m.
A Washington think tank says Las Vegas is a major U.S. metropolitan area with an emerging immigrant population but one whose adults are mostly low skilled because they lack high school degrees.
The Brookings Institution, in a report released today, says that is similar to its findings in Phoenix, but in sharp contrast to Atlanta and Orlando, Fla., whose immigrants on average are much better educated.
Basing its data on 2009 Census Bureau numbers, Brookings calculated that for every 100 adult immigrants in Las Vegas age 25 and older who don’t have a high school degree, there are only 49 high-skilled immigrants who have at least a bachelor’s degree.
That was based on 130,096 people who lacked high school degrees versus 63,367 who earned at least a four-year college degree. Also, 157,276 immigrants were considered midskilled because they had at least a high school diploma but didn’t have a bachelor’s degree.
Brookings identified Las Vegas as one of five major metropolitan areas in the country considered emerging gateways for immigrants because their foreign-born populations exceeded the national average since 1990 after being relatively small for most of the 20th century. The other cities are Atlanta; Orlando; Austin, Texas; and Phoenix. Phoenix has only 47 high-skilled immigrants for every 100 low-skilled ones. Austin is better at 73 to 100. But the ratio is 119 to 100 in Atlanta and 116 to 100 in Orlando.
A major reason Las Vegas has such a low ratio of high-skilled to low-skilled immigrants was the kind of work available in Southern Nevada before the Great Recession, said Brookings senior fellow Audrey Singer, co-author of the report.
“One of the things that attracted immigrants to Las Vegas was the relatively low cost of living, the quality of life and the housing boom,” Singer said. “A lot of people came to work in the construction industry and the hospitality industry, and that’s why the skill level tilts heavily to the low-skilled side.”
As of 2009, 22 percent of the Las Vegas area included foreign-born residents. Of those, 44 percent came from Mexico, which Singer said is known for having relatively low educational achievement. Atlanta and Orlando have a more diverse mix of immigrants, including those who may have attained higher education in the Caribbean.
Another advantage Atlanta has over Las Vegas is that Georgia’s largest city is home to a mixture of Fortune 500 companies, including Coca-Cola, Home Depot and Delta Air Lines, with no single dominant industry but rather a healthy variety of businesses. It is also the headquarters of CNN and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and has the world’s busiest airport.
“Low-skilled immigrants don’t have the language skills others have and that can put their children at a disadvantage,” Singer said. “We definitely need to care more about these families.”
She won’t get an argument from Otto Merida, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce. His organization this year awarded college scholarships to 105 Hispanic high school graduates, but said far more needs to be done to help immigrants achieve higher skill levels that can benefit employers.
With state and federal agencies tightening their budgets, Merida said the gaming industry and other businesses should contribute more financially to work-training programs.
“Putting more resources into workforce programs would benefit the community,” Merida said. “We need the resources to send more people to the community college and vocational schools.”