Building the Workforce We Need

Workforce development is a broad topic, encompassing everything from preparing students with the knowledge, skills and training they need to obtain employment and aligning higher education with the needs of identified industry sectors. It also is a major focus of diversifying Southern Nevada’s economy, and one of its key areas of opportunity to forge Las Vegas into a globally competitive city.

In discussions on how to develop Nevada’s workforce to be more attractive to industries that would be facilitators for economic diversification, especially those centered on technology and healthcare, one of the “best practice” environments to examine is Phoenix, Arizona. Phoenix closed the gap between workforce needs and employment by utilizing vital public-private partnerships and approaching workforce development from a collaborative, community-driven perspective. These cooperative efforts have not only bolstered Phoenix’s economic competitiveness, but also have increased its higher education system’s scope of expertise, leading to an historic cross-pollination of ideas, industries and resources.

Arizona State University’s New American University was a propeller in the paradigm shift when it was introduced by current campus president, Dr. Michael Crow. Embracing the potential for partnerships is part of the philosophy of the initiative, which focuses on catalyzing social change, conducting research based on need, blending intellectual disciplines for a multi-pronged approach on solving problems and engaging with local business to identify areas of need. Currently, 537 locations throughout Arizona have collaborative partnerships with ASU. One of these alliances is the Biodesign Institute, built in 2004. The Biodesign Institute serves as a hub for major scientific research and breakthroughs, and attracts world-renowned scientists, clinical partners from the private sector and industrial collaborators from the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. All of these resources are made available to the students, essentially giving them the exact tools and exposure they need to feed into these industries. Simultaneously, these industries have a vested interest in staying close to ASU – their next generation of employees are customized to fit their workforce needs and are just a specialized, highly competitive internship away.

Other collaborations span multiple disciplines, as well, including one with Boeing, which partners with ASU’s school of sustainability on a biofuel project to use algae to produce a kerosene-based jet fuel. Cooperation with artists, bioengineers, musicians, psychologists and computer scientists has brought about Mixed Reality Rehabilitation, a treatment system for stroke patients to improve motor skills and functional movements, with an interactive laboratory environment established at Banner Baywood Medical Center in Mesa. The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Media at ASU brings together students from business, computer engineering, design and journalism to study shifts in how people receive the news and how the public engages with different sources of media. Social media applications developed by these student teams have been distributed by the Gannett Company, which heads up USA Today and 23 news stations nationwide. Other partnerships through the New American University have addressed issues in improving the quality of education for low income urban and rural areas and infrastructure disparities in nearby American Indian communities.

By investing in the workforce through these unique partnerships, Phoenix has also reinvested into its own infrastructure. Recent collaborations with the City of Phoenix to build a new downtown campus helped to reinvigorate Phoenix’s core and further diversify its educational and commercial offerings. Spearheading this project was Wellington “Duke” Reiter, an urban architect who served as the past president of the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and long-term faculty member at MIT, as well as past Dean of the College of Design at ASU. In his recent essay, “Urban Optimism,” Reiter describes Phoenix as a city “on the front line of the future.” He commends Crow and the New American University project. “Essentially, the University has adopted the city as its laboratory and has been insistent that the measures of its success are to be found in the community. It is also notable for combining the success of the city and knowledge creation.”

Even on a community college basis, public-private partnerships thrive to enhance the quality of the workforce in the Phoenix area. One such example is that of Intel, which has teamed up with Chandler-Gilbert Community College in the Phoenix area to offer internships to two-year community college students. This allows students the opportunity to engage in traditional classroom learning, but supplement it with handson, valuable training onsite at the local Intel facility. Community colleges will often partner with various government agencies, employers and other organizations to create programming that meets a need of the community and cultivates students into those roles, ensuring that the workforce stays developed, engaged and local.

Along with the valuable public-private partnerships it has fostered, higher education in Phoenix recognized the need for a medical school in its efforts to expand and diversify. The city now has a medical campus at University of Arizona, and Arizona State University recently announced a partnership with the Mayo Clinic for a branch in Scottsdale.

At a recent address to the Rebel Business Network, Dr. Robert Lang of Brookings Mountain West and the Lincy Institute emphasized the importance of strong alliances between the business community and schools. Las Vegas has a resort corridor second to none, with four Fortune 500 gaming properties calling Las Vegas home. University of Nevada, Las Vegas, also houses one of the top two college hospitality programs in the country. By applying this model to other sectors in Las Vegas that do well, such as technology and data transfer, we can create more of the type of public-private partnerships that have led to major successes in development, innovation and the building of resources in Phoenix.

Lang also extols the economic advantage of keeping degree-holders in the Southern Nevada area, citing that degree holders are one of the key resilient elements against a sharp economic downturn. Investing in the retraining of tens of thousands of displaced workers will help prevent Southern Nevada from repeating its history in 2007, as well as representing a major step forward in redeveloping a local workforce, instead of relying on a developed workforce migrating to the area.

Steps towards bolstering workforce development in Southern Nevada have already been undertaken in the form of a revised higher education funding formula. In late August, a Legislative committee agreed to adopt a new funding formula proposed by the Nevada System of Higher Education that shifts $13.2 million a year to Southern Nevada campuses and encourages campuses to keep tuition paid by their own students, versus having to pool tuition statewide and then have it reallocated by legislators, which has been the process in the past.

The types of initiatives and programs that Phoenix has undertaken to increase its human capital, diversify its industry base and improve its global competitiveness can be translated to Southern Nevada through collaborative efforts between legislators, community leaders and local businesses. Identify and implement public-private partnerships that directly address workforce needs and economic diversification efforts of the area. Enhance the quality of education provided with quality research facilities and a medical school. Meet the needs of those that can enhance Las Vegas through new business, industry and innovation. By doing so, we too can successfully bridge the gap.

Find out more on how Southern Nevada can boost its workforce at “A Little More Action, Please: Let’s Connect the Dots, Las Vegas,” a two-day symposium hosted by the Chamber on November 15-16. For more information, visit