By Andrew Doughman
LAS VEGAS SUN
For a region scarred with high unemployment and a struggling education system, free money from the federal government for community colleges to retrain unemployed workers for high-wage, high-skill jobs would seem like a perfect fit for Southern Nevada.
So college officials had that covered, right?
The College of Southern Nevada this month chose not to apply for about $500 million in grants available from the federal Department of Labor to retrain workers at community colleges across the nation.
What’s more, Nevada’s institutions also received paltry awards in two previous rounds of grants each worth $500 million.
Nevada got $5.2 million of that $1 billion, about half a percent of the money.
The College of Southern Nevada received $2.5 million last year because the federal government forced Nevada to take the money, the minimum grant given to each state and U.S. territory.
That’s the least awarded to any state, making Nevada tied with Mississippi, Wyoming, Maine and New Mexico, said Bill Brown, assistant director at Brookings Mountain West at UNLV.
Given the region’s plight, Brown said he would have liked to have seen CSN apply.
“Nevada, the epicenter for unemployment during the Great Recession, should have performed better,” he said.
Officials at CSN say these type of grants often come with strings attached and have requirements for job placements at the end of the program. They said they did not have a fully developed workforce program that could benefit from the grant money this year and didn’t want to risk failure by applying for a new, untested workforce development program.
“The last thing we want to do for the citizens of Nevada and Las Vegas is go into one of these, not have it work out, and then you diminish the chances potentially of getting future funding,” said Darren Divine, vice president for academic affairs at CSN. “That’s a grant writer’s worst nightmare. That’s the kiss of death. We don’t chase money for money’s sake.
”Officials also said the federal government released details of application requirements just a few months before the July 3 application deadline.
But President Barack Obama’s administration approved $2 billion for this grant program in 2009 with $500 million to be awarded from 2011 to 2014.
In theory, colleges nationwide could be developing applications for the last round of grant funding in 2014.
Nevada System of Higher Education officials say the state has made strides to apply for this funding.
Just not in Southern Nevada.
Three Northern Nevada community colleges jointly applied for money to pay for a welding and machining course that would prepare people for work in the region’s mining industry.
The application states its ambition to receive a federal grant award “upwards of its full maximum value of $20 million,” the top individual award for an applicant to the Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College Career Training program.
Divine said CSN has used its $2.5 million in grant awards from 2012 for an advanced facilities maintenance and technician course in which the college partnered with Strip resorts to train workers in high-level plumbing, electrical and other maintenance work.
When the third funding round rolled around this year, the college didn’t have another workforce project for which it wanted to seek grant funding.
“We didn’t have another project waiting in the wings,” Divine said. “Sometimes the release of these grants doesn’t match up because either the projects are already gone or aren’t there yet."
While Nevada’s economic recovery sputters along, other states are seeking to supplement their own economic development plans with these federal workforce grants.
Nationwide, business and education officials often call community colleges the “workhorses” of economic diversification. Such workhorses in other states are trying to pull their states ahead of regional and national competition.
Five colleges in Arizona received a total of $13.5 million to train people to work in the energy industry, a priority sector of the economy for policymakers in Southern Nevada.
A single college in Minnesota won about $4.8 million to train workers for employment in “unmanned aircraft systems.” Southern Nevada officials would also like to see such drone programs in this region.
Even small states with low unemployment rates have cashed in for large awards. North Dakota received a grant of about $19 million, which brought together employers and colleges in Montana and North Dakota for workforce programs ranging from nursing to welding.
Nevada’s economic development gurus often talk about the importance of programs like these, arguing that construction and gaming employment aren’t enough to make the Las Vegas area thrive in the 21st century. They often say that Nevada needs to pair its community colleges with technical career training so local people can find jobs and local businesses can find workers.
“In Southern Nevada, we’re focused on transforming our economy, expanding economic development opportunities and diversifying our economy, so ensuring that we have the workforce that’s capable of supporting a growing and diversified economy is paramount to our long-term success,” said Cara Clarke, spokeswoman for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
In many cases, such talk translates to more talk; Nevada ranks last in the nation when it comes to receiving federal grant dollars.State officials realize the problem and established a state grants office in 2011 and then retained three consulting firms this year to help Nevada pursue more federal funding.
While growth fueled Nevada’s economy during much of the past decade, that machine imploded with the recession, and the prolonged economic downturn has forced policymakers to look for other sources of money.
But they weren’t quite prepared to get in the grants game.
A 2012 study by the state Office of Grants Management found “Nevada is missing out on potential grants because of a lack of awareness of the competitive funding opportunities, no established public-private partnerships, the inability to meet the match requirement and inadequate personnel to administer a grant.”
Nevada’s public agencies lack the “tools” that other states have when it comes to getting grants, said Dan Klaich, the chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education, CSN’s parent government agency.
“We can and should do more,” he said. “We should pursue federal opportunities, but we don’t have all of the other tools that some other states have, and it’s reasonable to recognize that."
Next year will be the last round of $500 million in the four-year life of the federal workforce grant.
Higher education officials hope CSN will apply, but they’re also not sure whether they will have a program they could use in a grant application.
“You don’t know one round from the next exactly how it’s going to be changed or what’s going to be focused on,” Divine said. “You try to have enough recipes ready so that once you get the ingredients, you say ‘OK, what can we do with this?’ ”