Mona Shield Payne / Special to the Sun
Friday, Jan. 7, 2011 | 11:01 a.m.
Nevada’s higher education levels are holding the region back from diversifying its economy and the city has become a modern-day version of Pittsburgh or Detroit, which once relied on one sector for its growth to its detriment, the director of a UNLV-based think tank said today.
Robert Lang, the director of Brookings Mountain West, outlined the problems Nevada faces as he kicked off a day-long conference at UNLV on how to diversify the economy.
Lang said the state has touted itself for its favorable business climate but said that’s meaningless without having a skilled and educated workforce that makes companies want to come here. The region’s economic downturn and dysfunctional appearance resulting from that are turning off companies looking to relocate to Nevada, he said.
“We don’t want to be a case study for what went wrong with the country,” Lang said.
The conference features the state’s political and business leaders along with experts on diversification in other states.
Lang said Las Vegas has hard-working people but he spoke in harsh terms about the region not having a high enough percentage of people who have bachelor’s degrees.
Lang compared Las Vegas to Midwestern and Northeastern cites with manufacturing plants and steel mills where the middle class had high-paying jobs, only to see those plants disappear. The jobs the gaming industry will produce in the future are for exporting the industry around the globe and that’s going to require higher education levels, he said.
“If we don’t address this, Mississippi is going to start to compare us to the rest of the country,” Lang said. “This is the direction we are heading, but we don’t have to go there.”
Gaming and tourism will continue to be a main driver of the economy, he said.
“There is no escaping it that we are at risk because we have lived off one industry. We can’t use that engine of growth to expand the state’s economy or fix the budget shortfall before us,” Lang said.
Lang said tourism offers connections to the world that help the Las Vegas economy link with others. Few cities have airports that allow them to access places around the globe, he said.
“We have the capacity to be a world city,” Lang said. “What is holding us back at this moment is the human capital. That is a reality of the new economy emerging in the 21st century.”
Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki said that while it’s up to the private sector to create jobs, government has a role to help facilitate diversification. He said it’s a non-partisan issue that will be dealt with in the current legislative session.
“One of the silver linings of these difficult times is people are working together in a special way,” Krolicki said. “This isn’t a partisan issue. It’s a Nevada issue.”
A state task force studying diversification is focusing on clusters that can be created to lessen the state’s reliance on gaming and mining industries, he said.
Those clusters include technology; defense-sector expansion; film, television and digital productions; business-to-business marketing; international business development; medical tourism; and renewable energy.
Krolicki said a focus on renewable energy means serving as a research and manufacturing center for solar, geothermal and other renewable energy industries.
Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford said the state can’t grow the economy without improving its education levels and said more must be spent on education in the state's budget.