Tesla arrival magnifies skilled labor shortage in Nevada

Tesla arrival magnifies skilled labor shortage in Nevada

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On one hand, Tesla Motors’ decision to locate its gigafactory in Nevada and create 6,500 full-time jobs at the facility is a huge boon for a state that faced 14% unemployment just four years ago.

On the other hand, it also further sheds light on an issue the state continues to struggle with as it tries to diversify its economy: a shortage of skilled workers.

It’s a problem documented in a new Brookings Mountain West report released Wednesday, which points to a “STEM deficit” in Nevada that’s further heightened by the Tesla effect. The Silver State’s ongoing challenges in filling skilled positions that require science, technology, engineering and math is leading to “missed opportunities,” the report said.

Although the state has done a good job in diversifying its economy after the recession, progress will be stunted unless the skilled labor part of the equation is adequately addressed, said Mark Muro, senior fellow and policy director of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program.

“Nevada has a plausible economic diversification strategy that’s beginning to work,” said Muro. “Now it needs a serious people strategy — and STEM has to be part of it.”

TOUGH JOB

On average, it takes 30 days to fill a STEM job opening in Nevada. In contrast, it takes 24 days to fill a non-STEM position, according to the report.

The wait gets even longer for jobs such as avionics technician and medical equipment repairer, which average 65 and 62 days, respectively. Both positions factor into two key industries for the state, aerospace and defense, as well as health and medical services.

Software and app development, a key skill sought by companies in Reno’s Startup Row as well as the state’s growing business IT ecosystem, takes an average of 42 days to fill.

It’s a problem that the region already was experiencing even before Tesla’s arrival, according to the Brookings report. In the last three years, for example, the region saw 20 new advanced manufacturing companies enter the area with another 20 or so undergoing significant expansions, said Mike Kazmierski, president and CEO of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada.

The efforts led to almost 2,500 new advanced manufacturing jobs — and that’s just one STEM-related sector of the economy. Add sectors such as unmanned aerial vehicles and medical services and you’re looking at even more skilled positions, Kazmierski added.

WHAT’S CAUSING THE SHORTAGE?

One reason for the shortage is misaligned workforce training, which is exacerbated by a lack of direction and relevance for the state’s industry sector councils, according to the report. The councils were created to better align the education system with the labor needs of key industries such as health care and medical services, manufacturing, mining and aerospace.

Another factor is a “STEM proficiency crisis” that affects all aspects of the state’s education system. According to the report, the state’s academic shortfalls for STEM begin all the way at the pre-kindergarten level because of uneven access to education.

Meanwhile, greater emphasis on test-taking is taking away focus from science and also placing less emphasis on nurturing imagination and creativity.

The education issues extend to high school, where some students graduate without the proficiency required for higher education, according to the report. At the college level, only 12% of students at the University of Nevada, Reno, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, graduate within four years, with most taking six years to finish.

SOLUTIONS?

To address the issues, the report recommended a reworking of the council system as well as the implementation of STEM education at all grade levels. The report also brings up the “STEAM” approach to education — which adds art and design to the STEM formula to further encourage creative thinking — but stops short of fully endorsing it.

While professional STEM jobs are certainly important, Brookings emphasized the importance of blue-collar STEM jobs as well.

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