Nearly 20 years ago, economic development officials in Nevada wondered what the state could do to attract employers in the fast-growing biotechnology sector. Industry officials told them flat-out that Nevada simply didn’t have the skilled professional workforce to support biotechnology companies.
Flash forward to this spring, when StemExpress announced plans to launch a major facility in Reno. The biotech company headquartered in Folsom, Calif., went out of its way to acknowledge its relationship with science programs at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), as one of the key factors in its decision to expand in Nevada.
“Biotechnology has been a real success story for us,” said Dr. David Shintani, UNR’s vice provost for undergraduate education, who notes that nearly 95 percent of the school’s biotechnology graduates walk directly into jobs after graduation.
While the relationship between higher education and economic development seldom is so sharply illuminated, college and university officials across Nevada these days closely watch long-term economic trends as well as the immediate workforce needs of employers as they shape their schools’ offerings.
Meeting Workforce Demands
Those same economic forces, however, are bringing some uncertainty about enrollment numbers on campuses this fall. As Nevada continues its economic rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities play a role.
“Our institution’s strong ties with the community enable us to shift quickly to emerging workforce demands and a changing economy,” said Dr. Keith Whitfield, president of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV).
The rise in the technology sector statewide means that enrollment in engineering programs at UNLV has increased by 75 percent since 2009, and it’s the fastest-growing program at the school. UNLV soon will break ground on a new advanced engineering building, where students will learn skills for careers in fields ranging from water-resource management to cybersecurity and robotics. As Las Vegas continues its ascent to a position as a top sports destination worldwide, meanwhile, UNLV has launched a new master’s degree in sports management and its Sports Research and Innovation Initiative.
Sometimes, colleges get the call to meet an economic demand right now. Northern Nevada, for instance, faces a serious shortage of workers in technology fields, particularly coders. State and local economic officials worked with Truckee Meadows Community College (TMCC) to quickly assemble a Tech Careers FastTrack program that trains previously inexperienced students to take tech jobs in as little as 14 weeks.
When students choose a college major, they’re often betting on job prospects after they earn a degree. For many, that translates into pursuit of a career in health sciences — everything from nursing to health-benefits analysis. About 10 percent of the undergraduates at UNR, for instance, are enrolled in health-related programs. (Business is second place, with about 7 percent of UNR’s undergrads.)
UNLV awarded degrees this year to its first graduates from the new Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine, and it’s building new programs in brain health and occupational therapy. Its highly competitive undergraduate nursing program has grown by more than 50 percent since 2017, and the UNLV School of Public Health played key roles in the state’s pandemic response. The story is similar at Nevada State College in Henderson.
“Nursing continues to be a very high enrollment program, and that certainly is driven by significant workforce demand,” said acting President Dr. Vickie Shields. (Shields, Nevada State’s provost and executive vice president, is serving as acting president until the mid-August arrival of new President Dr. DeRionne Pollard. Previous president, Bart Patterson, retired at the end of June.)
At Western Governors University (WGU), an entirely online school, enrollment in programs for health professionals increased by 49 percent in L as Vegas and 22 percent in Reno during the pandemic, with the strongest surge coming in the pandemic’s early days.
“That speaks to the heart of America,” said Rick Benbow, regional vice president for WGU. “People wanted to become part of the solution.”
TMCC, meanwhile, continues to see strong interest in its well-regarded programs in dental assisting and dental hygiene, which just became a bachelor’s degree program. Emergency medical services and nursing programs also draw strong enrollments, said Dr. Karin Hilgersom, the school’s president. Students see strong career potential in other fields, too.
Students at TMCC these days flock to construction-management and architecture programs — a commentary on booming building activity — as well as tech careers, says Hilgersom.
Training in advanced manufacturing, a program offered in partnership with Tesla, also draws strong enrollment. So do programs in automotive and diesel mechanics.
the state’s workforce depends heavily on good communication between college administrators and industry leaders. Nevada State is taking a major step with the creation of a full-fledged division of workforce development. Shields said it’s designed to analyze business and community needs in the state, then determine ways to enhance undergraduate- and graduate-degree programs to address those needs.
“We have seen a much more collaborative and helpful orientation emerge among potential community and business partners,” Shields said.
At the same time, Shields said the college can’t simply be a vocational school. People are likely to change careers several times during their lifetime, and a college education needs to provide skills such as written and verbal communication that are needed in any career.
Another major initiative comes at WGU, one of the founders of Open Skills Network, a coalition of more than 40 employers, schools and technology providers. The network’s goal: Identify the skills needed for jobs, establish common standards and create digital records of skills so that employers, students and jobseekers can better match jobs and workers.
Community colleges maintain particularly close ties to employers. At Western Nevada College (WNC) in Carson City, career-oriented programs are guided by advisory committees composed of industry experts, and a high-level Institutional Advisory Committee provides guidance about economic and employment trends.
“We work hand-in-hand with employers,” said Dr. Vincent Solis, president of WNC. “That is the very center of our mission.”
The diesel program at TMCC, meanwhile, recently redesigned its curriculum after extensive consultation with an advisory board of local industry leaders. The school’s hospitality and tourism program gives students behind-the-scenes looks at hospitality businesses and supports a steady stream of classroom presentations by tourism professionals. A bachelor’s degree program in logistics operations management is closely aligned with industry leaders in the region.
“We’re constantly listening to local industry and working to provide students with an education that truly prepares them for the workforce,” Hilgersom said.
Sometimes, that means taking the classroom to the students. Not long ago, WNC purchased a mobile mechatronics lab (mechatronics is the discipline that marries electronics and mechanical engineering) to conduct classes across its far-flung service territory. Workers at a manufacturer in Fallon, for instance, now can learn mechatronics skills in the mobile lab parked outside their workplace. The technology doesn’t come cheap.
When WNC purchased a simulator to help teach truck-driving skills, the price tag was $150,000. Holographic displays that allow health-sciences students to visualize the human body in three dimensions run $100,000.
Solis noted that businesses and other organizations provide significant financial assistance that allows the school to stretch its resources and provide excellent technological tools for its students.
Faculty members face other challenges from technological disruption, or even simple technological evolution, as they prepare students for today’s jobs.
“Our faculty members are constantly re-learning so that they can teach students the latest skills,” Solis said.
Live and In Person
Colleges faced significant disruption of their own from the COVID-19 pandemic, and administrators expect that the pandemic will continue to impact enrollment in the fall term.
Total enrollment at UNLV is expected to be about 30,000 students — little changed from last year. Still, that’s not bad, said Whitfield.
Nationally, universities saw undergraduate enrollment declines averaging 2.5 percent in 2020, but UNLV had a record-high 25,869 students seeking bachelor’s degrees last autumn.
“We may not be able to keep that pace this fall, but we’re encouraged that UNLV hasn’t experienced the level of enrollment drop that many institutions are facing around the country,” Whitfield added.
Equally important, more than 80 percent of UNLV’s students will be taking classes in-person this autumn, the highest number since the pandemic’s arrival drove much learning online.
“The natural dialogue and synergies that occur when we are together on campus forge camaraderie,” said Whitfield. “There is nothing like the energy of a lively campus to create that special experience for students, as well as for faculty and staff.”
Although UNLV has a reputation as a commuter campus, about 75 percent of its undergrads are taking a fulltime load of classes, and an increasing number of them choose to live on campus.
UNR, meanwhile, expects about 20,000 students this fall, down from the pre-pandemic peak of 21,000.
Shintani said a variety of factors are at work. Some students have lingering concerns about the pandemic. Others suffered financial setbacks. And some of the decline results from UNR’s success in moving students to graduation more quickly, meaning fewer are on campus for five or six years.
Administrators at Nevada State College, where enrollment has grown by nearly 50 percent during the past three years, expect about 7,200 students will be on campus this fall. That’s roughly the same as last year.
The booming northern Nevada economy, meanwhile, appears to be dampening enrollment numbers at WNC. Solis projects that enrollment this autumn will run about 5 percent below last year’s 3,500 students. Sharp drops in the number of men on campus — declines of 8 to 10 percent — are particularly noticeable, and Solis says abundant current job opportunities may be keeping men from developing skills they might need for future jobs.
TMCC expects to welcome fewer students this fall than last year, when its enrollment stood at roughly 10,250. And last year’s figure itself marked more than a 9 percent decline from the 11,300 enrolled in 2019. Hilgersom said a major factor is the disproportionate financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on many of its students. Thus, school leadership aggressively pitch the value of education and the availability of more financial assistance for students than ever before.
“Honestly, there’s never been a better time for students to invest in their education and skill sets at a community college than it is right now,” Hilgersom explained.
TMCC students appear to understand the value of education for their career futures. “Our average age of students is 25, and many students identify ‘improving job skills’ as a primary reason to choose TMCC,” she added.
WGU’s Benbow says the economic downturn at the start of the pandemic provided a powerful inducement for potential students to upgrade their skills. Overall enrollment in Western Governors University Nevada during the pandemic climbed by 32 percent in Las Vegas and 13 percent in Reno.
“People were looking to up-skill or re-skill,” he said. “People were using their time to look for different pathways.”
The average WGU student is 34 years old, has completed some college and now looks to finish a degree or a certificate program. That, in turn, means the large majority of the approximately 4,000 WGU students in Nevada also are holding down jobs or family responsibilities. So many of them complete their courses after work and after the kids are in bed that the school’s official mascot is Sage, the night owl.
Benbow said these older, mid-career students hold significant promise to meet Nevada’s need for skilled workers. He noted they’re seasoned workers who demonstrate their commitment to their careers by staying up late and working on weekends to complete degrees and certificate programs.
“They’re absolutely the people that America needs as we come out of the pandemic,” Benbow said.
Whitfield said Nevada’s leaders increasingly understand the cornerstone role that colleges and universities will play in strengthening the state’s economy — not just the students in their classrooms, but also the discoveries and new products created in university labs.
“Statewide, I believe there’s broad support from both the public and private sector in the notion that an investment in higher education is an investment in Nevada’s future,” the UNLV president added. “Strong universities are vital to economic recovery and sustainability.”