Tech-job wave is building in Nevada, but workforce lacks skills, report finds

Aaron Mayes / UNLV Photo Services

UNLV’s Greenspun Hall

Nevada has the STEM jobs, but many Nevadans don’t have the skill or education to land them.

That’s the conclusion of a Metropolitan Policy Program and Brookings Mountain West study, being released today, titled “Cracking the Code on STEM: A People Strategy for Nevada’s Economy.”

“It’s a serious problem that could be constricting economic growth,” said Mark Muro, one of the report’s authors.

Jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are poised for growth in three main Nevada business sectors, according to the report: health and medical services, business and IT ecosystems and high-tech manufacturing. But training programs at colleges and other institutions need to be brought more in line with industry needs.

Defining STEM

Those with STEM jobs aren’t limited to engineers or graduate degree holders, which is a common misunderstanding, Muro said. Doctors and nurses, for example, are STEM workers, but so are mechanics, lab technicians and others who attain community college certificates or associate’s degrees.

The report noted that more than 60 percent of Nevada’s STEM job openings in business and IT ecosystems and health and medical services do not require four-year degrees.

“That’s a big take-away here. Suddenly these jobs are a lot more meaningful and accessible with the right kind of community college or other training,” Muro added.

Adam Kramer, vice president of government affairs for the Las Vegas data network center Switch, said the company hired about 100 people in the past year. A good portion of those positions required network management, or Cisco certifications or experience, not four-year degrees.

Kramer said his company partners with the College of Southern Nevada, UNLV and private institutions.

“CSN, with its certificate degrees, is a big thing for us. … And the college itself has been great about asking businesses what they are looking for and how (the college) can train them,” Kramer said.

Susan Adamek, director of education for St. Rose Dominican Hospitals, said her team is hiring qualified people who haven’t attained bachelor’s degrees. She said EKG, surgical, GI and imaging technologists are all in demand. Although those positions are easier fill, there are plenty of openings for people considering the fields.

“Somebody with those qualifications should certainly be able to get a job,” she added.

And STEM jobs come with a “significant salary premium,” according to the report.

Jobs that require four-year degrees pay an average of $77,000 annually, compared with $51,800 for similarly educated workers in non-STEM fields. And for those with associate’s degrees or certification can expect a 60 percent higher average income than those with non-STEM jobs.

‘Deeper thought process’

But when it comes to higher-level technology positions, Nevada simply doesn’t compete, said Damien Patton, CEO of Banjo, a tech startup with a local office.

Banjo collects social signals and organizes them by time, location and content. The free app indexes breaking news and events and allows users to stay on top of news but also peoples’ reactions to it through social media in real time.

Patton said his greatest problem is finding data science engineers, software engineers and other engineers who are not just proficient but really on top of their game. He said Banjo is not a “horizontal business,” like, for example, an online store operation. Banjo is breaking new ground in how media is gathered and distributed.

“It’s about a deeper thought process,” he added. “These are people writing code for something that hasn’t existed before.”

His company employs about 30 locally and hires two to three people a month, most of them from Silicon Valley or top computer programs like MIT, Cambridge or Stanford. But some of his best employees are hackers without a formal education.

“I would put our hackers up against our MIT guys any day of the week,” he added.

Patton said he has exhausted the local talent pool and is more focused on finding those willing to relocate. About a third of his employees are from other countries.

Too many local college or university graduates lack understanding of cloud technology on a deep level, he said. They also lack knowledge of the latest programming languages, such as Python, Ruby or Google’s Go, and they are severely lacking in mobile computing.

“They're not coming out of school prepared. And that's just a fact. … I love Las Vegas and Nevada. I don’t begrudge UNLV or the system. I’m trying to help them. But the reality is … I can’t wait around for them,” he said.

Mike Yoder, chief technology officer of Wintech LLC, a locally based company that markets its ALICE virtual receptionist product around the world, has nine employees.

Software developer positions, he said, whose salaries range between $70,000 and the high $80,000s, are a challenge for him to fill as well.

“We just found two software developers locally, but we have hired from the East Coast,” he said. “It’s challenging in our market, but also just about any market.”

Waiting game

The report also highlights the length of time it takes employers to fill STEM positions. The average time to fill a non-STEM position is 24 days, while STEM jobs take about 30 days to fill in Nevada. For STEM positions requiring at least a bachelor’s degree, the average is 33 days.

But the higher the degree of specialty, the longer many jobs go without being filled. Aerospace jobs are vacant for an average of 45 days. Software application developer positions averaged 42 days, civil engineers 45 days, and database administrators 52 days.

In health and medical services, the hardest positions to fill include occupational health and safety specialists (87 days), internal medicine doctors (72 days), surgeons (62 days), nurse practitioners (48 days) and pharmacists (41 days).

Adamek said pharmacists, occupational therapists and physical therapists are high-demand positions. It’s not uncommon for St. Rose hospitals to work six months in advance to fill a pharmacy position.

Going forward

Muro noted that recent developments in Nevada show the state is moving in the right direction. The Legislature’s passage of Senate Bill 345 in 2013 creating a state STEM advisory council is one of them. The Nevada System of Higher Education has shown a willingness to align with economic diversification efforts, Muro said.

And UNLV has received grants to boost post-secondary education options for low-income students, as well as provide professional development for middle and high school STEM educators. The university’s emphasis on achieving Tier One research status, which began this fall, and pursuit of a medical school are also positives.

Among the report’s recommendations is a better alignment of education initiatives with private industry needs.

“Now is a time of particular ferment with whole new industries beginning to grow,” Muro added. “There’s a real need to make sure we are training potential workers for actual positions.”