No shock here: Las Vegas is light on technical jobs

Las Vegas’ economy relies heavily on gamblers, conventioneers and vacationers.

It’s a service economy — and, perhaps not surprisingly, it’s nearly dead last in the country for its share of technical jobs.

Only 12.8 percent of the valley’s workforce in 2011 had jobs requiring knowledge in science, technology, engineering or math, according to a new report from the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.

Las Vegas’ percentage of local “STEM” jobs was 99th out of the 100 metro areas surveyed. San Jose, Calif., the heart of Silicon Valley, was first at 33.2 percent while the rate nationally was 20 percent.

Local economists weren’t too surprised to hear about Las Vegas’ dismal ranking.

“I would have been more shocked if we were No. 2,” RCG Economics principal John Restrepo said dryly.

What’s holding Las Vegas so far back?

For one thing, the region’s largest sector by far is leisure and hospitality, which employs about 32 percent of the workforce, according to state data.

Resort operators and their suppliers need some employees with technical backgrounds who can, for instance, design electronic slot machines or operate the casinos’ computer systems. But for the most part, the resort industry offers low-paying service jobs.

In Las Vegas, only 2 percent of local jobs require “specialized knowledge” in computers, followed by 3.2 percent in math, 6 percent in science and 6.6 percent in engineering, Brookings reported.

By comparison, 17.3 percent of jobs in metro San Jose require expertise in computers, along with 14.6 percent in math, 10.4 percent in science and 22.4 percent in engineering.

With few STEM-related companies here, UNLV students who graduate with engineering or computer science degrees often leave for tech hubs such as the San Francisco Bay area; Boston; or Austin, Texas, Restrepo said.

“Companies here don’t produce enough demand for them,” he said.

More importantly, though, higher education is underfunded in Nevada, which crimps UNLV’s ability to become a strong research university, he said.

The roots of many large tech companies in the Bay Area — including Google, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard — are tied to Stanford University, whose research labs pump out tech startups all the time.

STEM companies often cluster near universities with strong, related research centers, such as software firms in Silicon Valley and aeronautical engineering and design companies in Seattle, said professor Steve Brown, director of UNLV’s Center for Business and Economic Research.

“If we want to attract STEM to Southern Nevada, basically we need a university that can support that,” he said.