RENO — A severe shortage of skilled workers is hampering Nevada’s ability to better diversify its economy, according to a new report by a think tank that recommends stepping up advanced training in science, technology, engineering and math.
“Because your workers are not optimally trained, you have a drag on growth and a lack of opportunity for people who want the credentials to move into good jobs,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow and policy director with the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program and Washington director of Brookings Mountain West.
The report, “Cracking the Code on STEM,” notes that Nevada is experiencing increased demand for workers in information technology and health care, and it will see even more growth in skilled jobs when Tesla Motors opens a $5 billion lithium battery factory east of Reno in 2016. STEM is an acronym that stands for the academic fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“However, there is a problem,” the report stated. “Even though many available opportunities require no more than the right community college certificate, insufficient numbers of Nevadans have pursued even a little STEM training. As a result, too few Nevadans are ready to participate in the state’s emerging STEM economy.”
The study concludes a “STEM proficiency crisis” is affecting all aspects of the state’s education system, beginning at the pre-kindergarten level. Among other things, it said greater emphasis on test-taking is taking focus away from science and placing less emphasis on nurturing imagination and creativity.
“This is an absolute message to the school districts that they need to improve instruction in math and science,” said Dale Erquiaga, Nevada’s superintendent of public instruction.
Jonas Peterson, chief operating officer of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, said the report matches what the economic-development agency sees as a top concern among the companies it recruits. “Our high-value companies are telling us loud and clear that the single most important factor in their next location decision is the workforce,” Peterson said.
The report estimates that more than 170,000 jobs in Nevada — roughly 15 percent of the total available — require a high level of knowledge of at least one STEM skill.
“Individuals with four-year degrees working in STEM occupations within the state’s target industries earn on average almost $77,000 per year, compared to roughly $51,800 for similarly educated workers in non-STEM jobs in the same industries, a premium of nearly 50 percent,” the report stated. Those with some college or an associate degree enjoy a 60 percent premium.
The report said that on average, it takes 30 days to fill a STEM job opening in Nevada, compared with 24 days to fill a non-STEM position. Jobs for software and app development take an average of 42 days to fill, and jobs such as avionics technician take 65 days to fill.
“All these are opportunities right here in the Reno-Sparks area,” said Mike Kazmierski, president and CEO of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada. “But if we can’t continue to excite people about STEM jobs and grow an educated workforce, those companies will either cap out or go somewhere else.”