A Losing Bet

The Pitfalls of a Gaming Economy

By Matt McDaniel

Six of the top ten employers in Reno are related to gambling.

Five of those employers were casinos, says a report last year from the Nevada Research and Analysis Bureau, while the sixth, International Game Technology, manufactures over half of the slot machines in the U.S. Out of the top 20 employers in Washoe County, another three casinos made the list.

These figures may come as no surprise to locals, as massive casinos dominate the Reno skyline. The casino industry has been a staple of Reno’s economy for decades, employing almost 15,000 people in February, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bureau also reports that out all recreation industry workers, which includes gaming services, 17 percent were millennials.

Many casino jobs require little more than a high school diploma, attracting millennials who put off going to college.

“Historically, it provided very good wages for lower skilled individuals,” says Mark Nichols, an economics professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. “The growth in jobs in this industry has slowed, however.”

Nichols also works at the university’s Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming. He says that competition from Indian casinos in California and other states has stifled Reno’s tourism industry.

The number of casinos in Washoe County dropped from 33 to 23, according a report from the University of Las Vegas Center for Gaming Research, which looked at gaming patterns from 1990 to 2012. The number of total employees also plummeted by 41 percent in that time.

Just in the last decade, this has meant 6,000 fewer casino workers in Reno and Sparks. This also resulted in a 25 percent decrease in annual taxable revenue from casinos, the Nevada Gaming Control Board reports.

The decline in local tourism seems to correlate with Nevada’s high unemployment numbers. In March, the state reported an 8.5 percent unemployment rate, the second highest in the nation. In Washoe County alone, there are currently over 19,000 unemployed workers. Millennials have been impacted the most, with workers under 25 reporting a 17 percent unemployment rate, according to the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation. 

Nichols says that without many other strong industries, workers laid off by casinos have had trouble finding other employment.

“Reno recognizes the need to expand its economic base beyond gaming and tourism,” Nichols says. “For the most part it seems to be going after any employers that are willing to come here, without a whole lot of consideration of whether they complement one another.”

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Nichols says. In the past, Reno remained stagnant because of the steady employment provided by gaming. Now, by developing a diversity of new industries, Reno is looking to provide more opportunities for high skilled laborers. Nichols says this shift in focus might one day flip current employment trends, with lower skilled workers looking for employment out of state and college graduates staying for the new opportunities. However, Reno still has a long way to go.

“We are a long ways away from this at this point,” Nichols says.

Photo by Stina Fausone

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