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College of Southern Nevada Charleston Campus on the first day of school, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. (Photo courtesy of CSN)

Following the crash of Nevada's job market from the pandemic, the College of Southern Nevada and other higher education institutions will be instrumental in diversifying a heavily tourism-dependent economy and retraining workers for new industries, CSN President Frederico Zaragoza said this week.

After notching a worst-in-the-nation 28.2 percent unemployment rate in April, hundreds of thousands of Nevadans are still out of work as the state sustains an unemployment rate of 14 percent, the third highest in the country. Nevada's one-trick economy — with one in every three jobs in the state relying on tourism — is partly to blame, said Zaragoza, who has worked in higher education and workforce development for more than 30 years. 

"The undertaking for us is developing programs to diversify the economy, so that there are opportunities for our graduates to enter new industries," Zaragoza said in an interview in Spanish with The Nevada Independent en Español. "We are well engaged in preparing new degree programs for students where there will be more diversification and in industries outside of the traditional."  

CSN, which had more than 35,000 students in 2018 , now has 30 programs for less common Nevada industries, such as manufacturing and health care, to prepare students for those careers, according to Zaragoza. The college will increase focus on retraining workers for various industries and expects to host an event in the fall focusing on developing new skills, he said.

Students returned to classes on Monday in a hybrid format, with the vast majority of coursework happening online and limited in-person offerings. Higher education officials expect enrollment at CSN to be flat this semester, but Zaragoza expects more prospective students to start exploring new career options later in the fall.

Zaragoza said that some people are still "in denial" about the economy and believe that the jobs they have lost will return. However, getting a "good job" today will require workers to retrain themselves for industries outside of the rhythm of hospitality, service and tourism, he said.

"I believe that for the next two years, we are going to see this type of trend that people are going to start to retrain themselves in new industries, and the economy is going to be more diversified than it has been in the past," Zaragoza said.

There are many industries the state is lacking, Zaragoza said, but the highest priorities for expansion in Clark County are information technology, manufacturing and the health care industry, which was already in need of workers before the strains of the pandemic.

While the economy diversified slightly from 2007 to 2016 on an index measuring economic diversity and has jobs available in those respective areas, the state lacks a properly trained workforce to fill those needed positions, he said. Additionally, there are few pathways or programs to prepare workers for new industries.

"The economy is already diversifying," Zaragoza said. "The businesses are already starting to get into those industries. But without the workforce, we are never going to get to the next level." 

Zaragoza is looking to create stronger ties and direct connections between CSN and schools in the Clark County School District to prepare students for different industries. When it comes time for students to graduate, higher education institutions are critical in connecting students with new jobs, Zaragoza said.

The new stress on retraining workers and diversifying the economy comes amid $1.2 billion in budget cuts from the special legislative session that included a cut of $135 million to the Nevada System of Higher Education, the entity that encompasses CSN and other public universities in the state. 

The cuts have halted the progress of future and developing projects at CSN, Zaragoza said, but the college's $7 million in CARES Act funding and $17 million in grants has allowed the college to maintain its pre-pandemic operations without cutting classes, professors and current programs.

With 90 percent of students being online for the semester, some expenses, such as building upkeep and utilities, have been reduced and transferred to other services needed for the primarily virtual semester, he said.

During this time of economic hardships across the state, a continued priority at CSN is helping students understand the application process for financial aid, Zaragoza said, emphasizing the need to make information available and accessible, including providing it in Spanish, for the 70 percent of students who receive federal financial assistance. 

For students who don't qualify for federal funds, including DREAMers — students who came to the U.S. as children and are undocumented — Zaragoza said that CSN works with businesses to provide scholarships, so they, too, can attend school and become a part of the growing and diversitfying workforce.

"My goal is that for every person that wants access to higher education, I have to have an opportunity for them," he said.

Despite the present economic challenges, Zaragoza believes that the community will adapt to the hardships of the pandemic.

"This doesn't happen in a month or two. This takes time," Zaragoza said. "But I believe that it's already started to change in terms of the economy and also the policies, and obviously in politics, that is going to guide our investments. So we're all, I think, seeing the future in the same way."

For more from Zaragoza’s Spanish interview, check out the forthcoming episode of Cafecito con Luz y Michelle on Fiesta 87.7 FM in Las Vegas on Sunday, Aug. 30 at 9:30 a.m. Or, check out the podcast version set for release on Monday.

Luz Gray and Michelle Rindels contributed to this report.

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