LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — A new $4 million program to keep top science and engineering talent could help in diversifying Nevada’s economy and ending the “brain drain,” state officials said.

It’s a competition for the best and the brightest, and Nevada has often been on the losing side of that contest as job opportunities in other states prompted graduates to leave.

Now, UNLV and UNR will play an important part in connecting students with employers and entrepreneurs as part of a talent retention program. Among other things, the program will ensure a competitive wage of $18 per hour, according to Karsten Heise of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED).

The program will pair science and engineering students early with tech-based companies and startups, Heise said. “When I speak with the startup and entrepreneurial communities, we consistently hear about the severe talent shortage jeopardizing the growth of early-stage companies, particularly in the technology sector with a specific shortage of engineering and computer science talent,” he said.

He added that a GOED study confirmed that talent in science and engineering is scarcer to begin with in Nevada — but there is also a much lower retention rate within a year after graduation compared to other fields of study. He pointed to national statistics that show the problem is even bigger in the competition for women and minorities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) careers.

At UNLV and UNR, expectations of success are high.

“This program is a true win-win for Nevada, as UNLV students will earn valuable workplace experience and emerging local businesses will gain an infusion of talent during the early stages of growth when they need it most,” said Zachary Miles, UNLV associate vice president for technology and partnerships. “I have no doubt that these internships will lead to career opportunities for our students, keeping them in our state as they develop into future leaders and crucial contributors to Nevada’s economy. Tech-based start-ups are essential in diversifying Southern Nevada’s economy.”

Katia Albright, director of the Nevada Career Studio at UNR, said, “By connecting our students to cutting-edge experiences that are based right here, it can make ‘Home Means Nevada’ a reality for more of our graduates than ever before.”

Funding for the program comes from a portion of a $30 million contribution from T-Mobile in November of 2019. That contribution came from a settlement reached when T-Mobile and Sprint were preparing to merge. Nevada Attorney General Aaron D. Ford expressed concern about preserving Nevada jobs, and the contribution — earmarked for “enhancing entrepreneurial opportunities for women, minorities and women and minority-owned businesses” — helped pave the way for Nevada’s support of the merger.

The talent retention program grew out of discussions between GOED and startup founders and entrepreneurs earlier this year. “The challenge that was identified was the need for the state to support startups and technology companies by addressing their increasing need for science and engineering graduates,” Gov. Steve Sisolak said. “These funds will help develop a program with a long-term vision to assist our young engineering and science entrepreneurs.”