Straight from high school to big bucks

Roberto Mendoza will buy his dream home the year after next. Assante Brown already has his. So does Jim Casey.

With incomes ranging from $35,000 to $50,000, the trio's finances are not particularly unusual. But their ages and educational level are: Mr. Mendoza - the youngest of the bunch - graduated from high school last year. Mr. Casey, the oldest, graduated only three years earlier.

The demand for willing workers has been a siren song across America, enticing teens and twentysomethings into the job market - especially in areas where high tech is hot.

Las Vegas, however, is a world all its own. In what is perhaps the most extreme example of a leisure-suit-tight labor market, Mendoza, Mr. Brown, and Casey - a waiter, a valet, and a bellhop - represent thousands of Nevada youths who forgo college and other technical training to work in Las Vegas's ever-burgeoning strip of megacasinos. The chance to make big bucks at such young ages presents a tantalizing opportunity for high-schoolers here. Yet it also creates a significant challenge.

The dropout rate for Clark County public high schools is the nation's highest - 11.8 percent for grades 9 to 12 last year. Also, the percentage of high school graduates who go on to college is among the lowest in the US.

"When you can go down to one of the casinos and get a job for $40,000 to $60,000 without any formal education, it's hard to convince some kids they ought to stay in school or go to college," says Ray Willis, spokesman for the Clark County School District. The district, which serves the Las Vegas metropolitan area, is the nation's eighth-largest and home to 60 percent of all Nevada high school students.

"We are fighting a battle of sorts with our main industry," says Mr. Willis of the $63 billion-and-growing tourism business.

Beside the huge incomes available for jobs that require little or no training and have no age requirement, there are also other lucrative jobs on offer, such as card dealers or "pit bosses" - people who direct games like roulette and craps. Many aspirants for these positions, though, have studied at area craft and technical institutions. They must be 21 or older, and they undergo extensive background checks.

Different paths

Other opportunities include administrative positions at restaurants and boutiques, which many students use to earn money for tuition at local community colleges. But there is also a large market for exotic dancers - a path that, officials and others warn, can sometimes take teens to the border of a dead-end world of prostitution, drug-dealing, and alcohol abuse.

"Frankly, a lot of girls right out of high school are attracted to exotic dancing because they can make hundreds a night," says Casey. "At that age, that can make it hard to choose other options that might be more appropriate in the long run."

Faced with this growing problem, school officials have increasingly tried to find ways to keep teens from abandoning their education. Foremost, they are pushing the benefits of higher education - as well as finishing high school - on students and their parents.

"As educators we are very concerned that kids are leaving school to make a quick buck, and we get worried when parents and kids think that is just fine," says Maria Chairez, director of a Clark County program to promote success in secondary education. "But we can't force our values on them and play God, we can only ask them to recognize the long-term benefits of getting their diplomas."

To this end, Ms. Chairez says the school district has asked casinos to voluntarily promote high school and other diplomas as a prerequisite for advancement.

In conjunction with the chamber of commerce and other business associations, they have also instituted a so-called "Smart Card/Smart Grad" program that enables kids with good grades and other achievements to get significant discounts on everything from clothes to cosmetics at area businesses.

"The community needs to help parents and families keep their teens in school with incentive programs," says Willis. "This program has proven to be a key factor for those kids who might be marginal."

Who makes the decisions?

School officials have run into resistance from both parents and casino operators who feel such career decisions should be the province of individual students, not school administrators or employers. Many parents lack formal education and have grown up working in casinos. Others moved to Las Vegas specifically for the employment opportunities that the tourism industry here presents. Nevada law allows them to waive formal education beginning at age 14.

But some casino operators have also realized the long-term benefits of raising the standard of education for their employees. Artie Nathan, vice president of human resources at Mirage Resorts Inc., is also head of the Governor's Workforce Development Commission and has a college-age daughter who works at the Bellagio casino.

"We feel it's better for the worker, the employer, and the patrons if our employees continue to pursue their education," says Mr. Nathan, who says 25 percent of Mirage Resort's 27,000 employees lack high school diplomas. "We go after every person who works here who doesn't have a diploma and try to get them into a GED [high school equivalency] program."

Currently, 150 Mirage employees are getting free general-equivalence courses and 2,000 are getting help with college tuition.

"At some point, not having a highly educated work force can eventually affect the state's chances of attracting new businesses," he says.

Others hasten to add that many young adults here are saving the income from their casino jobs for college.

Mendoza, who graduated from Clark High School last June, began work as a waiter at Bellagio when the world's most expensive hotel opened in October.

He attends Community College of Southern Nevada from 9 a.m. to noon, studies from noon to 3 p.m., then works nights busing tables at Bellagio.

"All of my friends are doing this to save for college," says Mendoza, who will pay his own way to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas in 2001 to study business administration. "When you grow up in Las Vegas, this is not unusual."

Mendoza's future

He acknowledges having friends in other cities from Minneapolis to San Diego who say their best employment opportunities as teens are mostly janitorial services and waiters who make about half what he does.

"Where and what I will do after that is anyone's guess," he says. "We don't want to be waiters and valets forever."

Because of such opportunities, casino spokesmen caution against painting the lure of casino work solely in a negative light.

"Not all of the kids today have to or should go to college the way our generation was urged to," says Nathan, who grew up in Utica, N.Y. "There are hundreds of career people here who never went to college who are providing well for their families. Las Vegas is an anomaly, but not necessarily a negative."

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