State business leaders want better education system, more skilled workforce

The state’s workforce pipeline and education system top the list of Nevada business leaders’ concerns, according to survey results recently released by Bank of Nevada.

The survey’s findings aren’t necessarily surprising: The state’s business community has grumbled for some time about its struggle finding quality, skilled employees in a city where many decent-paying casino jobs don’t require advanced degrees.

Fifty-one percent of the 200 business leaders surveyed cited the “quality and availability of the workforce” as the most pressing challenge facing state businesses. Naturally, then, half of respondents pointed to Nevada’s education system as a major concern.

“The business community is sending a clear and unified message about the need for improvements to our public K-12 education system,” John Guedry, Bank of Nevada CEO, said in a statement. “Our ability to diversify Nevada’s economy is absolutely tied to the improvements we make in educational outcomes, student proficiencies, higher graduation rates and expansion of workforce training.”

As president of Nevada Succeeds — a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of business leaders focused on improving the state’s education system — Brent Husson often hears those complaints. He did again last week when meeting with Microsoft in Reno.

The technology giant lamented its ability to recruit Nevada residents for jobs in highly skilled fields like engineering, Husson said. His response to those kind of remarks: “We’re working on the things that are actually going to make a difference.”

ELL students take class at Pat Diskin Elementary School in Las Vegas on Tuesday,, Feb. 07, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

The state has implemented a variety of education reforms in recent years, including funneling more money to programs that help children learning English or those who come from low-income families. The Clark County School District also is undergoing a state-mandated reorganization that shifts more budgeting and decision-making power to the schools — the idea being that best practices for improving student outcomes will rise to the top from these “empowered” groups of parents, principals and staff.

A piece of the reorganization effort focuses on improving the quality of teachers and school leadership, which can quickly transform the education environment, Husson said.

“If you get the right leadership in there, you can move math and literacy scores in a matter of a year or two” at elementary schools, he said.

That being said, the community won’t necessarily see the effects of all the improvement initiatives until younger cohorts of children make their way through the system, Husson said. Students who experience the revamped system from beginning to end should demonstrate better outcomes if the community implements the changes successfully, he said.

As for other concerns, business leaders cited health care costs (37 percent), business taxes (24 percent) and business regulations (22 percent).

The state’s Medicaid expansion has fueled the rising health-care costs, said Doug Geinzer, CEO of Las Vegas HEALS, a nonprofit devoted to improving the quality of health care in Southern Nevada. Many Medicaid patients — perhaps because they didn’t have a primary-care physician in the past — are seeking care in emergency rooms, which is more expensive, he said.

Because Medicaid reimbursements are low, hospital systems are making up those financial losses by increasing their costs for services, he said.

Will the trend continue? Geinzer said it’s difficult to predict given the uncertainty regarding health care going forward.

“Obviously, Obamacare is not going to look anything like it does today,” he said.

The survey wasn’t all negative, though. Business leaders expressed hope going forward, with 87 percent saying they feel confident about the future. Forty-eight percent said they are “somewhat confident” their revenue will increase during the next 12 months.

That confidence extends to workplace activity: Fifty-six percent of business leaders said they plan to hire additional employees, 52 percent plan to provide additional training and 52 percent plan to increase their marketing and promotion efforts.

Other takeaways from the survey results:

  • Fifty-five percent of business leaders believe increasing the pool of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates will have the most positive impact on Nevada.
  • Sixty-two percent of business leaders believe the election of Donald Trump as president will have a positive impact on the business sector.
  • Fifty-nine percent of respondents said local government action on improving K-12 education would benefit the business climate for their companies.

WestGroup Research conducted the survey in January, with funding from Bank of Nevada and First Independent Bank, which are divisions of Western Alliance Bank.

Caption: Photo courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau.