If the projections are right, Nevada is poised to be on the receiving end of tens of thousands of tech-centered jobs by 2020. While the influx of new opportunity is a positive sign for a state hit hard by the economic recession, making sure the workforce can meet the demand is a challenge in need of immediate attention.
With companies like Tesla and Switch, Inc., investing heavily in the state, the need to create and maintain a skill-ready workforce at the college level is a key focus of state leadership. The Office of Science, Innovation and Technology (OSIT) is behind the assignment of the first installment of grant money to help cultivate the next generation of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workers.
Just Wednesday, the state agency announced it would be distributing more than $335,000 in grant funding to three community colleges to enhance workforce training programs and ultimately the state’s economy.
Brian Mitchell, director of OSIT, said Wednesday’s grant money is only one part of a larger effort to prepare Nevada for the decent-paying positions that come with the STEM fields. A 2014 Brookings Institute report, Cracking the Code on STEM, was the catalyst for creation OSIT and its concentration on the high-tech workforce.
“The crux of this report that came out last year was that, 'Nevada has an economic development strategy that’s working, now it needs a people strategy,'" he said.
The effort dovetails well with Gov. Brian Sandoval’s plans to diversify the state’s heavily gaming- and tourism-reliant economy. With a total of $3 million allocated by the Legislature for the STEM Workforce Challenge grants for the biennium, Mitchell said creating lasting partnerships with interested industry has been the next essential step in the process.
“The purpose of the grants was to create partnerships, long-lasting partnerships, between industry and training providers,” he said.
With industry input on educational programs, Mitchell said students will be better suited to approach the workforce with current, real-world skillsets. Programs that receive the grant funds are asked to give students what he refers to as “middle skills,” or skills not dependent on a higher level of education or bachelor’s degree programs.
“I think most people, when they think of STEM, think of the guy with a PhD and a white lab coat, looking through a microscope and they don’t realize they can go out and get a great job and they don’t even need a bachelor’s degree,” Mitchell said. “[Students] can go get an associate’s degree and have a solidly middle class job without all the debt that comes with it.”
As the state prepares for the arrival of the Tesla Gigafactory, near Sparks, and the roughly 6,500 jobs it brings with it, Mitchell said preparing students to get a foot in the door with the company and others like it is very important.
“There’s a big need for these kind of programs," he said. "As Tesla comes and all of the suppliers or other ancillary jobs that Tesla brings with them, there’s a big need for these kind of programs."
According to the director, a second round of grant funds will be opened for request proposals in the near future.
Nevada State College (NCS), in Henderson, is set to receive $36,540 to help train new STEM teachers for Nevada’s rural counties. The cash infusion will be used to convert traditional courses into online and interactive ones.
According to Dr. Robin Cresiski, vice provost of Scholarship and Experiential Curriculum, the state money will help to fund collaborative efforts with other schools and make some of the course offerings more accessible to interested students.
“The grant will fund technology housed at NSC’s campus, including an auto-tracking camera to enhance the live-streaming of some courses up to Western Nevada College (WNC) students, as well as science supplies for WNC’s campus so that their students get the same hands-on opportunities as our own students,” she said. “It will also provide funding for us to convert in-person science classes into online and live-streaming formats, which will not only benefit transfers from WNC but all of our students.”
Cresiski said NSC has embraced the need to for well-rounded STEM curriculum through a host of courses in 3D printing, robotics, chemistry, biology and environmental science.
“We understand that as Nevada looks to diversify its economy, we need more baccalaureate degree holders because many industries are increasingly relying on graduates with a bachelor’s degree," she said. "We also know businesses want employees with hands-on experience. To meet these needs, last year we launched an academic internship for credit program that placed approximately 50 interns into local organizations and businesses and helped students connect their in-class learning with real-world skills-building. We have just begun expanding this program into STEM disciplines."
WNC was awarded $150,000 to build a mechatronics training center with Siemens certified curriculum and Truckee Meadows Community College will receive for $149,435 to create a data center training program in partnership with Switch, Inc. Officials from neither WNC nor Truckee Meadows Community College were available to discuss the programs as of press time Thursday.