Game Changers: Education Plays Role in Nevada's Economic Health - 8 News NOW

Game Changers: Education Plays Role in Nevada's Economic Health

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LAS VEGAS --  Fewer than 25 percent of southern Nevadans have a college degree. It's a statistic that's slowing the region's economic recovery, according to nearly every expert who's looked the problem.

The lack of an educated workforce, they say, is a key reason companies go elsewhere. So to attract new industries, Nevada's universities are working to graduate more students.

Nevada Ranks Low in Educational Achievement

For years in Nevada, higher education has been seen as some sort of luxury; an unnecessary cost, instead of a crucial investment. But if diversification is Nevada's way out of this recession -- and nearly everyone agrees that it is -- it will require an educated workforce. It also requires recognition that the University of Nevada Las Vegas can be a driving force in the economy.

Outside of the engineering department at UNLV, equations may sound like a foreign language. Graduate students like Robert O'Brien, not only understand their relevance to the scientific principles of x-ray technology, they apply them beyond the classroom at a company called Varian Medical Systems.

Located in Henderson, the company produces highly specialized linear accelerators for medical imaging, cancer therapy, and security screening.

"It was really the best kept secret in Las Vegas to have such a high-tech company here that fit so well with a lot of our capabilities," said Paul Seidler of UNLV's Harry Reid Center for Environmental Studies which oversees the fledgling partnership between the university and Varian.

"We are going to train students that are capable of working at Varian, so that's an important element. We're also going to bring on new faculty members to train those students, but who also have the ability to do research in areas that are important to the accelerator industry," Seidler.

UNLV has plans to open its own accelerator facility in the near future -- supplied in part -- with donations from Varian. Until then, graduate students regularly use its facilities for research and have designed software for some of Varian's systems.

"The relationship with Varian is really growing. For students like O'Brien who grew up in southern Nevada, the partnership also represents employment opportunities at home.

"My first choice is to stay here. We want to have graduates that graduate from UNLV and actually stay here and work in a high-tech field in Las Vegas rather than move across the country," O'Brien said.

Currently UNLV exports many of its engineering graduates. It's a brain drain UNLV President Neal Smatresk hopes to plug by partnering with private industry. Former Rand Corporation President Jim Thompson will lead the university's new office of economic diversification.

"I think when you see him, the folks working on intellectual property, how we're interacting with little business startups, especially with our students and how we're trying to expedite tech interactions between private industry and UNLV, I think you're going to see that there's a really strong axis of collaboration that grows up," Smatresk said.

The partnerships are modeled, in part, after Utah's successful U-Star program. Enacted in 2006, it uses university resources to develop new technologies and create new businesses and jobs. Utah has the second fastest growing job creation rate in the country due in large part to the state's financial investment in higher ed.

"The top investment for any state is in its intellectual capital and that comes in the form of people and that comes in the form of highly talented faculty with proven track records who can attract yet more to the region and that becomes that resource honey pot that draws in industry," Smatresk said.

The accelerator industry, for example, continues to grow at a rate of 10 percent each year. The same is true for Varian. The company recently hired its first UNLV grad.

Seidler jokes it doesn't take an engineering student to recognize the potential for UNLV, for industry, and for Nevada.

"I honestly believe that this could create billions of dollars in spin off companies in a relatively short period of time. There are so many huge opportunities."

Nevada Below Par in Public Education Spending

Similar to U-Star, Nevada has a program dubbed the Knowledge Fund. However, the legislature didn't fund it. One economic analyst told the I-Team, the state gets what it pays for. It shouldn't come as a surprise that a lack of investment in education has not only hurt kids but also the economy.

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