Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014 | 2 a.m.
I’m feeling heartened these days. I’m sensing growing consensus that, thanks to the emerging technology industry, Nevadans are now prepared to seriously address the foundation of our future — an improved, fortified education system to give our children the tools they need to succeed.
Just last Thursday, the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance and the Clark County Education Association hosted a meeting, attended by more than 200 business and community leaders, to discuss the need for the Legislature to step up and do the right thing in funding Nevada’s education needs.
We indeed have choices to make, including how to prepare our children for what we’ve long sought, a diversified economy. On that point, I’ve relinquished my space this week to experts on Nevada’s education needs. Their research and observations drive home the need for Nevada to adjust how it prepares our youngsters and young adults for the future.
— Brian Greenspun
• • •
Nearly seven years after the start of the Great Recession, the Las Vegas economy is looking up.
The wounds inflicted by the housing crisis and the ensuing economic crash have begun to heal and the region’s new focus on economic diversification is starting to pay off, with fast hiring in the emerging IT sector and steady hiring in the sizable health sector.
It’s no longer wishful thinking to imagine a more balanced, higher-value Las Vegas economy populated with better-paying, higher-tech jobs in software companies, the drone industry, water technology and medical pursuits.
However, although the region now has a plausible economic strategy, it lacks an equivalent strategy to connect people to these opportunities. And it needs one.
As we explain in our new report “Cracking the Code on STEM: A People Strategy for Nevada’s Economy,” neither the Las Vegas area nor the state as a whole has a clear plan for delivering the trained STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) workforce required for continued growth in Nevada’s increasingly diversified economy.
Why does STEM matter? Because STEM has become the new common language for our increasingly technological and digital age — for people, for firms and for regions.
In today’s economy, STEM training is the surest route to a well-paying job. In Nevada, the average college graduate with a STEM job in one of the state’s target sectors earns almost $77,000 per year, compared to less than $52,000 for college graduates in non-STEM jobs.
For those with some college but not a bachelor’s degree, the STEM wage premium is even higher. These blue-collar positions, which comprise what our colleague Jonathan Rothwell has dubbed the hidden STEM economy, are readily available to those with the right training. In 2013 nearly one-third of all Las Vegas job openings in IT and over two-thirds of health care jobs in the region did not require a bachelor’s degree.
Firms also benefit from access to a STEM-proficient workforce. Without sufficient numbers of well-trained STEM workers, many companies find it difficult to innovate and expand. Numerous Las Vegas health executives say shortages of nurses, diagnosticians and doctors partly explain the region’s undersized medical sector, and multiple IT entrepreneurs argue the relative lack of programmers and software developers in the region has constrained growth.
For regional economies, skilled STEM workers are the key to growth and prosperity. Regions with more STEM-oriented economies have more job growth, better wages, higher levels of exports and innovation and less income inequality.
If the huge crowd that gathered Nov. 12 when we presented our work at the InNEVation Center is any indication, many Las Vegans understand that STEM education and training are critical for economic growth and broadly shared prosperity — both for those with advanced degrees and, perhaps more importantly, for those with only some college. The warm reception our report has received makes us hopeful Las Vegas will assemble an ambitious STEM strategy in the next few years, to be complemented by supportive state action.
What should this strategy include?
Las Vegas should unite behind UNLV’s pursuit of Tier One research status and its plans to develop a medical school, which will together build a strong foundation for STEM research and workforce training in the region.
But there’s plenty more for the region’s impressive network of business, civic and philanthropic entrepreneurs to do to advance Nevada’s STEM agenda.
To start, Las Vegas leaders should take action to raise public awareness of the importance of STEM to the region’s economy and the many well-paying careers available to those with some level of STEM training. A statewide STEM marketing plan, developed and funded by the civic sector, would help inspire the next generation of STEM workers.
Meanwhile, employers in STEM-oriented industries should play an active role in the state’s industry-sector councils, workforce-training consortiums and university and state college advisory panels to ensure postsecondary education and training align with existing and expected workforce needs.
The private sector and philanthropies should work together to strengthen pre-K-12 STEM education. Funding for professional development as well as signing and retention bonuses for outstanding STEM educators would help prepare and keep great STEM teachers in the classroom.
Civic leaders also should explore how public charter schools might bolster STEM education in the region. A regional effort to recruit best-in-class charter management organizations and bring 30,000 new seats to tough neighborhoods would greatly improve opportunities for students from Las Vegas’ low-income communities.
These local actions must be complemented by a state-level effort to build a strong system for STEM education and training, driven by Gov. Brian Sandoval.
In addition to using his bully pulpit to educate Nevadans about the critical importance of STEM education and STEM jobs, Sandoval should appoint a STEM champion to head up the development and implementation of a state STEM education and workforce-training agenda.
For its part, the Legislature, working in conjunction with Sandoval and the STEM champion, should establish and fund challenge grant competitions for pre-K-12 education and regional workforce training initiatives to provide funding for STEM education and workforce development while also encouraging stakeholders to collaborate in new ways and replicate effective models from elsewhere.
By strengthening STEM education and workforce training, the region can take an important step toward a more broadly prosperous future.
Jessica A. Lee is a senior policy analyst and associate fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. Mark Muro is a senior fellow there and co-director of Brookings Mountain West.