Stopping the Southern Nevada brain drain
September 25, 2011 - 1:05 am
Before I make my case, a bit of context is in order.
The term best used to describe my situation is “economically displaced Las Vegan.” I grew up in Las Vegas and by most measures, was one of the top academic prospects in the state. I attended the best high school in the state, aced all of my standardized tests, held meaningful summer and part-time jobs, and volunteered extensively. I was accepted to UNLV, as well as a number of other schools and universities near the Las Vegas area. After finishing my bachelor’s, I attained a master’s degree and several professional recognitions, and currently have a job on the leading edge of what I went to school for.
I wish I could say I did this all in Las Vegas, but that is not what happened.
I ended up going to a university in Illinois for my bachelor’s degree, and one in Washington, D.C., for my master’s. One thing led to another and I ended up staying in the Washington, D.C., area. It was hardly a decision, though. Even if I were to find a job in my field in Las Vegas, my income would be half of what it is now, and my career development extremely limited.
I wish my story was unique, but it is not. While my evidence is largely anecdotal, I have talked with enough people who graduated from Clark County high schools to start grouping my observations.
A vast majority of my friends and classmates — all among the best and brightest in Nevada — did the same thing I did: They were accepted to UNLV or UNR (often with full-ride scholarships), yet went to school out-of-state. Unfortunate as it may be, staying in-state and attending UNLV or UNR was looked down upon by peers and parents alike.
After graduation, our paths followed one of a few patterns. A small handful of my classmates returned to Nevada for advanced degrees in law, medicine-related fields, or hotel and casino management. I can’t speak as to where they will end up developing their careers, as many are just now completing their advanced degrees. I do know a few are having trouble finding a job the same field as their degree. A number fall into a mix of under-employment and unemployment, many looking to pursue degrees outside the state to be more marketable.
A considerable number, however, followed my track — they found a job somewhere outside of Nevada and stayed there to pursue a career. It is not that they dislike the Las Vegas area, in fact many wish they could return. The economy just does not allow it. In more real-world terms, I have a close friend who grew up in Las Vegas and obtained a degree in engineering from a top-tier university. It is unlikely he will choose a career dealing cards or managing a sports book, even if he or she wanted to reside in Las Vegas.
Living outside of Las Vegas, I see first-hand the types of jobs which are in-demand, what is required to attain them, and what types of employers are hiring. In general, the primary driver of growth is wealth originating somewhere else. Nevada saw this effect for years in two forms: people with jobs in a different part of the country (or world) spending their money at casinos, and out-of-state individuals purchasing homes in Nevada after they moved here for a new job. Since these two markets were strongly linked, as one dried up, so did the other. With a diminished stream of out-of-state income, Nevada was left to recirculate the limited resources it had within its state borders, stunting growth.
Another observation is that economic growth appears to be strongly linked to areas with solid post-secondary academic bases. New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, and California all have top-tier schools that work to support the local economy. Highly-ranked universities encourage the best and brightest students to stay in-state after high school or baccalaureate graduation, perform research for local businesses and industry, and attract grant dollars from outside the state. Apart from a limited number of programs, UNLV and UNR quite simply are not respected enough to woo the top graduates in Nevada, or the big research grants that highly-ranked schools rely on.
Rather, Nevada needs a small, elite, full-time resident, non-profit, four-year college that offers a wide range of research and academic programs, especially in the sciences, engineering and related disciplines. The college would be the post-secondary equivalent of The Meadows School, Bishop Gorman, or A-Tech, a place that attracts the best students in Nevada and keeps them until they are ready to enter the work force.
Without such an institution, Nevada is spending tens of thousands of dollars on educating its top students only to lose them to an out-of-state university, with little hope of getting them back. That’s bad for businesses and government alike, as these individuals return a generous portion of their income to the community through taxes, donations and similar activities. It is also very bad for long-term growth, as they often become the entrepreneurs and industry leaders in their communities, and are the best source for “job creation.”
If Nevada wants to rebuild its economy to be sustainable, and minimize the effects of the next inevitable recession, it needs to start developing industries and talent that are adaptable and diverse — in other words “recession-resistant.” Gaming and entertainment, medicine, and a modest amount of IT-related industries will only take Nevada so far; like a good stock portfolio, diversification is a must.
The Las Vegas area is a desirable place to live with good weather, infrastructure and an excellent legal climate for business development. Nevada should not have the mercurial economy that it does, and the only way to avoid a repeat of 2008 is to invest in, and retain the individuals who will be in leadership roles 10 or 20 years down the line.
Janusz Wasiolek, a 2003 graduate of The Meadows School, writes from Fairfax, Va.