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Nevada's top industries still struggle to hire workers. Why?

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Kristen DeSilva/KNPR
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It’s been a struggle for businesses in key sectors of the Las Vegas economy to find workers. 

A U.S. Chamber of Commerce report said that the leisure and hospitality industry has had the highest quit rate since July 2021, consistently above 5.4%. Remote work has also changed the game. 

A recent Gallup survey found that 91% of U.S. workers hoped they could continue working some hours from home. Three in 10 workers signaled they would seek new jobs if they were recalled to the office. 

So, what has this meant for Nevada? And with companies laying people off in expectation of a recession, will workers be so demanding? For that matter, where did all the workers go; what happened to those who worked before the recession. If they aren’t working, how are they surviving? 

Nevada's labor force participation rate is at an all time low. But the state has recovered all of the jobs that were lost during the pandemic.

Lisa Levine, the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Workforce Innovation, said it’s a two-part story. She told State of Nevada host Joe Schoenmann on Monday that Southern Nevada was hit hardest by the pandemic because of the economy’s reliance on leisure and hospitality. 

“And frankly, we hadn't fully recovered since the great recession,” she said. Unemployment is low nationally –about 3.7%– and is about 4.4% in Nevada. “So I wouldn’t say that necessarily we’re totally out of the woods just yet.”

In Nevada Business Magazine last week, Brian Gordon from Applied Analysis said there are two job openings for every person in the unemployment system. In Clark County, that’s about 86,000 people. 

“There's definitely a workforce shortage, if you will, which is something that we've got to work on,” Levine said. “We actually are partnering with the UNLV Center for Business and Economic Research to do a survey to ask the very question that you're asking. Why, if you're not participating in the labor force currently, what are the reasons? Are there barriers of entry that exist for you? Maybe it's childcare, access to childcare facilities? Maybe it's affordable housing, maybe it's transportation, right? There's a lot of cultural ways to think about this. And that's something of a new thing.”

She pointed to the higher number of women dropping out of the workforce during the pandemic and the importance that has placed on the discussion of childcare. 

There is also the possibility that more people than expected retired early. The rate of people 85 and older in Nevada is twice that of the rest of the country.

The continued lack of workers can also be attributed to burnout due to the initial shortage, said Sonny Vinuya, the president of the Asian Chamber of Commerce. He said his wife was the perfect example: “She was just tired of it and left for about two years. She’s slowly going back into it, but she said, ‘I had to take a break.’”

He also noted a pay disparity that’s affected some workers. For elderly home care, he said, where 10 or fewer seniors live, those caretakers can be paid as low as $11 per hour. Meanwhile, many fast food restaurants are starting at $15.

Automation also likely played a role. Levine said it was sped up along the Las Vegas Strip, with automation replacing some gaming jobs.

“We need to think about how we can train, rescale, and upskill areas where we currently have a strong labor force,” she said. “And maybe that's going to shift into advanced manufacturing or healthcare or IT or technology, these in-demand sectors that we know Nevada's future relies on.”

She said the state just received a $13.8 million federal grant from the Department of Education to train and reskill, she said. So far, they’ve had 700 Nevadans go through the program. Their goal is to have 1,700 people go through the program by next September. 

“We talked about ‘the great resignation,’ but some people called it the great reevaluation; they didn't feel like they had purpose in what they were doing,” she said. 

Cecilia Maldonado, the associate vice provost of UNLV Workforce Development, said the economy overall has changed.

“Investing in career development and career exploration, and those experiences that allow students to kind of practice the skills in jobs they might be interested in, need to increase,” she said.

Workforce development wasn’t traditionally an offering for college students, but that development ranges from career options to soft skills development. 

“The workforce is changing so much that we really do have to educate people about what to expect and prepare them for what the expectations are in the workplace,” she said. 

Dr. Christopher Choi of Concierge Wellness Center is one of those employers struggling to find employees.

He said during the pandemic, a lot of telemedicine companies launched, making it possible for many physicians to work from home. He said the difficulty has been finding medical assistants. 

“In my office, it took me over a year to find a fourth staff member, one person. We've gone through a couple of externals, and so on, and try to hire a person who can actually work with us. And that was difficult, but it took about a year to find one,” Choi said.

The issue was lack of qualifications. So, he raised the pay 20%.

“You have to make it not just about the pay,” he said. “I think you have to make the workplace a very happy place for everybody. We're working, so none of my staff leaves. I've had a great retention once they start working for us.”

The next session of the Nevada Legislature, led by Governor-elect Joe Lombardo, is something Levine is hopeful for. 

“I'm hopeful that workforce development is really top of mind this session, and that we finally start investing in people that when we talk about workforce development, it's not just the infrastructure aspect on economic development, it's also investing in these training programs, because we do not have very much state support right now,” she said. 

Lisa Levine, executive director, Governor’s Office of Workforce Innovation; Sonny Vinuya, president, Asian Chamber of Commerce;  Dr. Christopher Choi, founder, Concierge Wellness Center;  Cecilia Maldonado, associate vice provost, UNLV Workforce Development

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Dave Berns, now a producer for State of Nevada, recently returned to KNPR after having previously worked for the station from 2005 to 2009.
Kristen DeSilva (she/her) is the online editor for Nevada Public Radio. She oversees and writes State of Nevada’s online and social media content.