It’s More Complicated Than the Headline: College Educated Workers Moving to Las Vegas


On May 13th, the New York Times (NYT) published an article titled: Coastal Cities Priced Out Low-Wage Workers. Now College Graduates Are Leaving, Too. The article noted the exodus of college-educated graduates from large coastal metropolitan areas like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York for inland mid-sized and small metropolitan communities that provide more affordable housing and living costs, improved quality of life, and new career opportunities. Some examples cited included cities like Phoenix, Austin, and Raleigh. The data for Las Vegas also showed increased rates of new college-educated residents since 2019, which is good news.  But, as with life, there is more to the story.

Las Vegas has proven time and time again to be a popular relocation spot for Southern Californians and residents of other expensive metro areas. Despite the heavy economic toll of the pandemic, Clark County still added 47,101 additional residents between 2019 and 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Along with this population increase, the number of college-educated new residents ages 21 to 64 rose from 24,005 in 2019 to above 29,000 in 2021. Meanwhile, the proportion of college educated to total new residents in Las Vegas for ages 21 to 64 rose from 31 percent to 38 percent.

This is welcome news as a skilled and educated workforce not only helps grow our economy but also helps diversify it, too. Increased levels of college education lead to higher productivity and entrepreneurship over time, which means more economic output per capita and a healthier, richer, and more resilient economy for everyone.

That said, when compared to our peers, Las Vegas still has much catching up to do. Denver, Phoenix, Austin, and Reno, for example, attracted a much larger share of college educated residents to their communities, compared to Las Vegas. In Austin, the percentage of individuals moving there in 2021 between the ages of 21 and 64 with a college education was nearly double Las Vegas’ percentage at 68.2 percent. This matters for Las Vegas because the workforce shortages employers across the country are currently experiencing will likely continue, if not increase, in the years ahead. We must build a pipeline of skilled and educated labor to compete with other regions.

UNLV’s Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER) has been taking an in-depth look at the scars left by the pandemic on our workforce for over a year. What initially caught our eye was that Nevada experienced the third-largest decrease in labor-force participation after the pandemic, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, behind only Maine and Maryland. We went from 20th in the nation for labor-force participation to 32nd, which we estimate is about 88,889 missing workers in Nevada and 57,474 missing workers in Clark County.

What gives? Well, when analyzing the same data that the NYT used from 2019 to 2021, we actually see that labor-force participation in Nevada between the ages of 21 and 64 declined for those with less than a bachelor’s degree, 75.5 percent in 2019 to 74.4 percent in 2021. Males with less than a bachelor’s degree, aged 21 to 64, already residing in Nevada, posted a larger drop in labor-force participation than females and those with a bachelor’s degree or higher (male or female).

As noted in the NYT article mentioned at the beginning, college-educated workers more likely moved during the pandemic compared to non-college-educated workers. The college-educated residents who came to Nevada during this time period, ages 21-64, on average, work in professional services, healthcare, and education, according to CBER’s analysis. Despite an overall gain, Nevada also lost a larger share of workers in those industries to other states, contributing to a local brain drain and minimizing the marginal benefit from in-migrants in those fields. New residents without a college degree, ages 21-64, mainly ended up in the following sectors: transportation and warehousing, retail, finance, and leisure and hospitality.

What does this mean?  Despite fears of robots taking over, that hasn’t happened, and won’t if we work on attracting and retaining a skilled and educated workforce. While we should celebrate more college-educated workers moving to Nevada and Las Vegas during the pandemic, we need to build upon those successes and catch up with our neighbors. For example, Nevada still ranked in the bottom 9 states for attracting college-educated workers, aged 21-64, in 2021.

The question we should be asking is not only how we attract tomorrow’s workforce from other states, but also how we build that workforce from within today. That means taking both the responsibility and risk of creating something that may not be here right now, but could be with the proper commitment such as electric vehicle battery and charging fabrication, medical device manufacturing, healthcare research and development, information technology, and so on. We are in an arms race for skilled and educated workers. As a region, we must lean into our successes and be more intentional about attracting, recruiting, and growing a skilled and educated workforce if we want to effectively compete with our neighbors.

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