In a cluster of low buildings eight miles from the Las Vegas Strip, a group of women gathers in a mock hotel room. An instructor clucks disapprovingly, yanks a sheet from the bed and demonstrates again how to fold a corner properly.
In nearby buildings, white-clad chefs demonstrate the use of enormous pots in an industrial kitchen and a classroom of immigrants begins an English lesson.
Away from the neon glitter of Las Vegas, a glimpse inside the Culinary Training Academy shows something of what makes up this vital workforce that keeps the city running.
Las Vegas has a voracious appetite for service workers. Unlike many states, where jobs have declined as factories close, Nevada is forecasting huge demand for jobs driven by booming casinos. About 2,500 students graduate each year from the academy, which was founded in 1993. They go on to jobs ranging from housekeeper to sommelier.
A sign above a door sums up the academy’s mission: “This is not an exit. It is a doorway to opportunity.”
According to the Nevada Department of Employment, the number of hotel and casino jobs will grow 42 per cent between 2002 and 2012 to about 289,000 positions; the number of restaurant jobs will grow 53 per cent to 50,000. The hospitality sector already accounts for nearly a third of non-farm jobs in Nevada.
The academy is part of Nevada Partners, a non-profit organisation. The bulk of its Dollars 5.5m (Euros 4.3m, Pounds 2.9m) annual operating budget is funded by hotel worker contributions and 30 Las Vegas casinos.
The US hotel industry employed nearly 1.8m people in 2004 and will need an extra 300,000 workers by 2014, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Restaurants employ 12.5m workers and job demand will grow 15 per cent by 2016, says the National Restaurant Association.
Both industries rely heavily on immigrant workers and support laws that would give undocu- mented workers a path to legal status. Nationwide rallies supporting immi- grants drew hundreds of thousands of demonstrators last month but Congress is still debating legislation that would criminalise the undocumented.
Because of Nevada’s lower cost of living and higher-than-average union wages, service workers in Las Vegas have tradi- tionally had a good chance of vaulting into the middle class. Cultivating employees has become critical as Las Vegas changes from a city of cheap motels and buffets to celebrity chef restaurants and luxury hotels.
“Vegas used to be a buffet and coffee shop town. But now it’s gourmet and fine dining,” said Steven Horsford, chief executive of Nevada Partners.
Last year, starting wages, not including the pension and health insurance benefits in their packages, began at Dollars 14.64 an hour for a cook’s helper, and Dollars 15.08 an hour for cashiers.
Anyone can enrol at the academy. Mario Alvarado from El Salvador, who cleans kitchen equipment at the Caesar’s Palace casino, enrolled in a month-long training programme last summer to win a higher-paid job as a cook’s helper.
His classes were scheduled after a long work shift, but “if the union continues to give money to study, I’ll keep going the extra mile”, he said.
The academy hopes to train even more people like Mr Alvarado. It aims eventually to produce 5,000 graduates annually.
About 2,000 students have enrolled in the vocational English programme, funded by a Dollars 1.9m grant from the Department of Labor in 2004 to help train workers with limited English in Las Vegas.
Mobility has become tougher in Las Vegas as the cost of living soars. Its rising popularity last year drove average home prices up 70 per cent to Dollars 304,700 compared with 2003 prices, according to the National Association of Realtors.
These figures underscore the importance of training to compete for the industry’s best-paying jobs, notes Pam Egan, chief operating officer of Nevada Partners. “People need to take advantage of every possible avenue to maximise their earning power.”