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Brookings: Nevadans Need To Gain More Skills For Higher Paying Jobs

Improving opportunities for Las Vegas’ unskilled labor market is key to our region’s goal of achieving a more diverse economy.

But employment today is failing to achieve the promise it did a few decades ago.

Wages of unskilled workers – especially among men – have been stagnant. They have actually fallen relative to those of more educated-workers.

And some groups – like less educated men generally and black men, specifically – are working less.

So, we were curious, what impact do these trends have on Las Vegas?

Ron Haskins, among his many titles, is a senior fellow of economic studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

He told KNPR’s State of Nevada it is a simple equation in the current economy.

“You do have to have skills beyond high school, if you’re going to do well in our society,” Haskins said.

There was a time when a person could get a good paying job with just the skills learned in high school, but Haskins said that is not the case anymore.

And he said that lack of education and training is impacting low-income families more.

“This is one of the most important problems in the country,” Haskins said, “The gap in education between kids who are disadvantaged from low-income families, roughly speaking, and the education of kids who are from wealthier families has been growing and growing and growing.”

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That is going on at the same time the percentage of jobs requiring highly skilled workers is also growing.

“That leaves poor kids at a greater disadvantage probably more than at any time in the past,” Haskins said.

But the lack of skilled labor goes far beyond the bank accounts of individual families, it has an impact on the entire community, according to Haskins.

When the labor force in a city is paid less, it pays less in taxes, which can have a big impact on schools that depend on property taxes, he said. And people who are paid less, require more in government help, because unskilled workers are more likely to lose a job and then struggle to find a new one.

“Government takes less money in because of the low skills and they pay out more because of the low skills, because those people and their kids are more likely to need social services,” he said.

Haskins said the lack of job skills is particularly pronounced among men, especially black men.

“Both black and white men have gradually been withdrawing from the labor force,” he explained, “So the percentage of all black men and all white men who have a job at any given moment has been declining for 30 years. That’s happened in Europe too.”

According to Haskins, the problem is especially pronounced in young black men between the ages of 20 and 24 where he says only half of that population have a job.

“And the problem is you can’t build families, you can’t build communities, you can’t build a state when half of the men don’t even work,” he said.

However, the problem goes beyond people who don’t have a job to people who have jobs but their wages haven’t increased.

“The wages of the bottom 50 percent of the wage distribution for men are no higher today than they were in in 1979,” Haskins said, “Because we have such a proportion of people who don’t have high skills.”

He said community colleges are crucial in fixing the low-skill problem. He said a four-year degree is not necessary for everyone but technical training in fields that are growing and stable like computers and health care could go long way to solving the problem.  

“We need to get our community colleges to focus a great deal of attention on the jobs that are available in that state or even that city or county and train people to fill those jobs and be highly trained in doing it.” Haskins said.

(Editor's Note: This story originally ran in January 2016)

Guests

Ron Haskins, senior fellow in the Economic Studies program and co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution.

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