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Nevada's economic growth requires more career-focused education

A recent study found that Nevada needs more skilled workers to fill high-tech jobs for companies like Tesla moving into the region. The labor shortage requires more career-focused education, but there are challenges to overcome, like teacher shortages.

Researchers at the think tank Brookings Mountain West have found that STEM—which stands for science, technology, engineering and math—is the type of education needed to meet the demands of Nevada’s economic growth.

Dale Erquiaga is the Superintendent of Public Instruction and he says schools have an obligation to prepare students beyond graduation.

“Too often, public education in the K-12 environment thinks about our role as ending when a student graduates, and I think this report really highlights that we have a lifelong impact," Erquiaga says.  "And we have an immediate economic responsibility to the state.” 

In recent years, the Washoe County School District has focused on preparing students for the workforce by setting up signature academies at 11 local high schools. Dana Ryan is the director of the program and says each academy offers STEM-based instruction in a variety of fields like business management, energy technology, and hospitality. 

“I believe the programs that we have in place have the ability to provide the skilled workforce that the companies migrating to our area are looking for, but what I think needs to happen, though, is to grow the capacity of those programs,” Ryan says.

But that growth is dependent on finding more qualified teachers. Ryan says people with STEM skills typically can earn more outside of the classroom so teacher compensation needs to be re-examined. Ryan would also like to overcome the perception that this is vocational training.

“Today’s career and technical education looks very different. It’s very rigorous, it’s very academically based,” Ryan says. “It’s very technical. I mean kids are learning coding in the first week of a class.”

About 950 freshmen out of 1,200 applicants were accepted to a Signature Academy this school year and Ryan expects enrollment will increase by a third for next year.

Michelle Billman is a former news director at KUNR Public Radio.
Anh Gray is a former contributing editor at KUNR Public Radio.