Friday, Feb. 7, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Wendy Ellebrecht has a simple, but powerful message for Las Vegas students thinking about dropping out of high school.
Don’t give up, because you’ll regret it.
Facing a room full of Desert Rose Adult Education students, Ellebrecht shared a personal story of how a high school dropout went back to class, earned a diploma and worked her way up to become a manager at one of the largest corporations in the world.
“The decisions you make today will affect you for the rest of your life,” Ellebrecht told the students, who were at a job shadow event sponsored by MGM Resorts International on Thursday. “That’s why it’s so important to choose the right path.”
The California native said she dropped out of high school when she was a sophomore. The self-proclaimed rebel didn’t like her classes, so she stopped going, she said.
For a while, Ellebrecht bounced around from foster home to group homes. Eventually, Ellebrecht ended up back with her father, who encouraged her to finish high school. Taking up the advice, Ellebrecht attended an adult education program, going to classes twice a week until she earned her high school diploma.
Ellebrecht’s first job out of high school took her to the newly opened New York-New York, an MGM Resorts property. She started her career in 1999 as a ride operator at The Rollercoaster, formerly known as the Manhattan Express, earning $7 a hour.
Over her 15 years with MGM, Ellebrecht worked her way up from ride operator to supervisor to operations manager overseeing one of the most popular attractions on the Strip.
Ellebrecht said she wouldn’t have the career she has today if she hadn’t finished high school.
“You have to have a high school diploma,” Ellebrecht told the students. “I’m really glad that I went back and got it.”
Ellebrecht’s story was one of several told throughout the day Thursday as more than 400 Clark County high school students visited 11 valley businesses as part of National Job Shadow Day. The event aims to help students find the connections between what they learn in the classroom and how it can be applied to the workplace.
“It’s one thing to show how something applies to the real world in class, but when they learn it from real employees, it hits home more,” Desert Rose’s internship coordinator Michael Merced said. “That’s why job shadowing is so important. They get to see what real life is all about.”
While some Clark County students toured tech companies like Zappos and Switch Data, the majority toured the predominant industry in town: gaming and hospitality. MGM Resorts hosted the largest number of job shadow participants: 150 students from four local high schools.
Careers in the gaming and hospitality industries don’t just consist of blackjack dealers and car valets, said Christina Leathers, MGM’s manager of philanthropy and community development. Strip companies are looking for a variety of skilled workers in finance, engineering and even science.
Students learned about sustainable energy by visiting the Aria hotel’s on-site power plant. Down the street, students got a lesson in horticulture through a tour of the Bellagio’s conservatory and in marine biology from a visit to Mandalay Bay’s shark reef exhibit.
At New York-New York, engineer Juan Manriquez explained the physics and mechanics behind the hotel’s popular ride, The Rollercoaster. Students also learned the techniques casino controllers use to spot counterfeit currency and the hard work it takes to be a housekeeper in one of the top tourist destinations in the world.
“We want to show students that there’s more to hospitality than cocktail waitresses and (housekeepers),” Leathers said. “There are so many more opportunities available for students who work hard.”
Throughout the day, students learned not only the importance of hard skills, such as basic accounting and communication skills, but also soft skills, such as acting professionally in a workplace. Most of all, students were taught that if they work hard, they have the potential to better their lives.
Nevada Assemblyman James Healey, D-Las Vegas, told students he started working for MGM as a front desk clerk when he was 19 years old. Over his 21 years with the company, he rose through the ranks to become the executive director of housekeeping at New York-New York. One day, Healey said he hopes to become a vice president at MGM.
His advice to students? Work hard and dream big.
“Set a goal today that will get you to tomorrow,” Healey said. “No one is going to hand you that opportunity. It only comes from hard work and dedication.”
Healey’s message seemed to resonate with students, who enjoyed a ride on the rollercoaster at the end of their tour.
Jennifer Amezcua, 17, said she started her senior year at Desert Rose six credits behind her peers. After her visit at MGM, Amezcua said she’s determined to finish.
“I think you have to go and graduate,” she said, adding she hopes to work in hospitality or law enforcement one day. “This means a lot. I see what you need to get a career and make a life for yourself.”