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Jennifer Robison

Degrees of change in casino hiring practices

21 November 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- If you have solid gaming experience but your casino career isn't going anywhere, you might want to revisit your educational credentials.

Right now, you're probably thinking, "Educational credentials? To work in a casino?"

It's true that casino operators have typically given nary a nod to college education, looking instead for prospective employees with real-world experience.

"Having a degree from Harvard or another top school has not held a lot of sway," said Jim Wortman, director of the Gaming Education & Research Institute at the University of Houston in Texas. "Coming out of college with a degree is great, but do you know anything? What have you done?"

That attitude has changed, though, as casino operators have started to realize how college training and continuing education can boost their employees' job performance, said Wortman and other panelists discussing gaming education at the Global Gaming Expo on Thursday.

The fresh emphasis on education has even started showing up in salaries.

After three decades of indifference to book learnin', gamers now pay more money to new hires with master's degrees, Wortman said. And those educated staffers merit plum assignments in key areas such as research and impact studies.

Sudhir Kale, a marketing professor at Bond University and chief executive officer of GamePlan Consultants, both in Australia, said companies understand more and more that investing in marketing and human-resources training in particular can yield a major return on investment.

Kale's research shows a return on investment of 200 percent to 250 percent for every dollar spent on marketing, including investments in training.

What's more, Kale created an index of publicly traded businesses that spent roughly twice the industry norm on employee training and education. The companies in his index outperformed the S&P 500 in earnings by as much as 35 percent.

"It's undeniable that training is one of the best investments anyone can make," Kale said.

That's why casino operators increasingly reach out to colleges and universities, both for new graduates and to craft in-house continuing-education programs specific to the gaming sector.

One of the gold standards for gaming education resides right here in Southern Nevada, at the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

There, students in the gaming-management concentration study everything from finite math and economics to sociology and communications. The idea: turning out well-rounded students, said Gail Sammons, chair of the school's hotel-management department.

Local casinos are keen to offer internships to UNLV students, Sammons said. Each student must complete a 1,000-hour internship, though the school encourages 2,000 hours of work-study. To accompany their internship, students take time off from the classroom and work on independent study, developing research projects with the casino managers who supervise them.

"We put out students who understand the industry and have realistic expectations," Sammons said.

The gaming education bug has bitten schools well outside Las Vegas.

Philadelphia's Drexel University launched an undergraduate gaming curriculum in 2006, the same year the City of Brotherly Love gave out its two casino licenses. Drexel added a master's program in gaming in the fall.

Today, Drexel's gaming education serves four groups: traditional undergraduates interested in a gaming career; members of other industries who want to obtain gaming certificates online; casino workers who hope additional education will boost their prospects for advancement; and casinos who turn to the school to shape proprietary, in-house training programs.

"Gaming education gives you an accelerated learning curve," said Jane Bonukewicz, an instructor with Drexel's hospitality program.

The University of Houston has also jumped in the game, working with gaming companies in Texas, Las Vegas and across the world to place students in internships and conduct career fairs.

But work experience remains as essential as ever, Wortman said. A good degree alone still isn't enough to get a toehold in the gaming industry. A newly minted grad with no internship experience is headed nowhere fast. And even with the combination of a degree and experience, most casino workers can expect to invest many years on the job before they climb high up the corporate ladder.

"We need to impress realistic expectations on students," Wortman said. "These companies are not going to entrust a $500 million operation to you just because you graduated from a good school. Work experience is paramount. If you're not working while you're in school, you're not going to get a good job."