The financial crisis wasn’t just a crisis in Nevada—it was a catastrophe. As the epicenter of the housing crisis, the state achieved the dubious honor of having both the highest foreclosure rate and the highest unemployment rate in the country, with the latter topping out at 13.7 percent in 2010.
Eight years later, Nevada has regained all 186,400 jobs lost during the recession, and then some. More importantly, the state has learned from its suffering and is taking major strides to ensure both that it attracts employers that are offering well-paying jobs and that it trains a skilled, diverse workforce that meets the needs of those employers.
The rest of the country could learn a lot from the Silver State, which made it the perfect place for the last presidential debate, which was held on Oct. 19 at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
“We’re trying to skate to where the puck is going to be,” said Cory Hunt, the Northern Regional Director at the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “We’re not only trying to meet the current demand of industries that are here, but to build the workforce in areas where we want to establish ourselves.”
Prior to the crisis, the state was highly dependent on the tourism and construction industries, the latter thanks to the real estate boom that ultimately decimated the local economy. While those industries are still major employment drivers, there is a conscious and very serious effort to make sure the state does not depend on any one industry going forward.
How serious? The Governor’s Office of Economic Development’s website can be found at diversifynevada.com, and Gov. Brian Sandoval created a special Office of Workforce Innovation in July to tackle the issues facing the current and future workforce. The state is working hard to develop itself into a hub for advanced manufacturing, aerospace and defense, and logistics and transportation, as well as casinos and mega-hotels.
They’ve had some remarkable success. Tesla is building a gigantic battery “gigafactory” in northern Nevada that will eventually employ thousands of Nevadans, and the state is also the new home of the Hyperloop, which aims to revolutionize traditional cargo transportation using electric propulsion.
Faraday Future, an electric car company, is building a $1 billion, state-of-the-art advanced manufacturing facility outside Las Vegas. The company has said it plans to hire more than 4,000 workers by the time operations begin, which will likely be in late 2017 or early 2018, according to people involved with the project.
To prepare for the onslaught of demand for skilled workers, the state is fostering tight-knit partnerships between K-12 schools, colleges, and employers. The idea is for employers to tell educators what skills students and mid-career workers need to get jobs in the industries of the future and for educators to make sure they can acquire those skills.
“There’s a saying that you can’t let a good crisis go to waste,” said Kerry Pope, principal of Southeast Career Technical Academy, a Las Vegas high school. “For Nevada, this really was a crisis. And we could either wallow in it or figure out how to get people in the right places.”
Using state grants, Southeast and the College of Southern Nevada are training workers for the Faraday Future factory. Southeast has introduced robotics and advanced manufacturing programs for high-school students, and the College of Southern Nevada is developing an associate’s degree in manufacturing that teaches soft skills, the use of particular tools and lean manufacturing concepts.
Southeast students who take relevant courses can get college credit for them, and the college has even purchased some of the exact equipment that Faraday has said it intends to use. The equipment will stay at the high school for students to use but once they go home in the afternoon, adults from the community will be able to come in and train too.
“What we’re lacking is a workforce culture for these industries,” said Craig Von Collenberg, director of Apprenticeship Studies in the Workplace and Personal Safety Program for the College of Southern Nevada. “You go to Detroit, and people there speak the manufacturing language, they understand what manufacturing is—their parents and grandparents were in the industry. We have to train people not only in how to do the operations, but how to think like a manufacturer.”
Manny Lamarre, head of the state’s new Office of Workforce Innovation, notes that during the crisis, wooing promising new industries to the state and securing funding for training future workers was a clear priority—and it remains so today. As a result, the unemployment rate in Nevada has fallen back to 6.3 percent, a vast improvement from at the height of the crisis. There is a chance that maintaining a sense of urgency around workforce development may be a challenge going forward—particularly in a state where many workers are used to the idea that the biggest employers don’t always require much in the way of skills or training.
“When I moved here a year ago, I would speak to young adults who would say, ‘I can make $70,000 parking cars,’” he said. “Not many cities can say they have an economy where you don’t have to have a high school diploma to make $70,000 a year. The challenge is to get people to understand that you need to continue to progress. Cars will eventually park themselves—and then what are you going to do with those individuals?”
The question that Lamarre is asking is one that should be of great concern to more state and local officials. Nevada’s experience during the financial crisis is in many ways a harbinger of what the rest of the U.S. might face when technology and automation decimate a wide swath of jobs. By fostering collaboration between corporations and educators, state officials and local ones, Nevada is running a great experiment and the rest of us would be wise to watch the results coming out of their lab.