Through courses like “Mathematics of Games," "Tribal Gaming: Legal and Regulatory Issues” and “Casino Resort Marketing” the casino managers of tomorrow are getting a real-world education at a growing number of colleges and universities today



While enrollment numbers are modest, the Class of 2009 may very well represent the largest number of new college graduates to receive degrees specializing in casino-related curriculum.

As part of its hotel management department the University of Nevada, Las Vegas offers students the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree in gaming management with topics covering table games management, table games security and the sociology of gaming. The gaming management program at UNLV has been around for five years and includes non-gaming curriculum such as law courses, organizational behavior, human resources and facilities management. Current enrollment is about 130.

“[Students] get an understanding of the gaming industry from a much broader perspective. It’s a much more rounded degree in business operations,” said William Werner, interim chairman of the hotel management department at UNLV.

The goal at UNLV and other schools offering gaming degrees and certifications is to continue to fill the casino-resort employee pool with a fresh supply of management-level candidates.

“As we progress toward more educated people, people with degrees moving into gaming management, the executives at the companies expect more of their gaming management people to really understand what the game is, how we make money at it and understand the numbers of it,” Werner said.

Essentially, the colleges strive to offer feeder programs for gaming operators, and they welcome input and support from the industry. 

“We are always looking to the industry to add unique and interesting courses,” said Alan Silver, director of the Casino Resort Studies program at the Mississippi Coast Campus of Tulane University in Biloxi. “As educators you have to be there and available to help the community.”

When Silver took the job in 2004 at Tulane, which offers an associate in arts degree, a minor and a post-baccalaureate certificate in Casino Resort Studies, one of his first priorities was to get the right curriculum in place. He and Richard Marksbury, dean of Tulane’s School of Continuing Studies, hosted a luncheon for casino executives from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, including casino presidents and executives of marketing, human resources and slot operations to get a better understanding of the skills sets demanded by casino operators.

The feedback Silver received at that meeting is now the basis for the Casino Resort Studies program, which had an enrollment of about 120 in the fall of 2008. During its evolution the school has added courses such as “Casino Resort Financial Accounting” and “Casino Resort Marketing” to give the program more of a business focus and approach. It also added customer service and casino resort leadership and group dynamics to address the need for interpersonal skills. Some of the school’s more popular electives include data base marketing, security and surveillance and table games management. Silver said the school is looking to add a course in the information technology sector. Tulane even offers a course on “The History of Gambling”.

Specialization

Last month the first-ever graduates from the Sycuan Institute on Tribal Gaming at San Diego State University received B.S. degrees with an emphasis in tribal gaming.

“This is the very first and only degree in tribal gaming in the world, so the Sycuan Band are pioneers in that sense,” said Kate Spilde Contreras, chair of the institute. 

With a 2005 endowment from the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, which operates the Sycuan Casino in El Cajon, Calif., near San Diego, the institute provides research and education, including classes with titles such as “Tribal Gaming: Cultural and Political Context, Casino Operations, Legal and Regulatory Issues” and “Marketing and Public Relations”.

According to Spilde Contreras, tribal gaming’s management and operations environment is unique, and it often takes outsiders, even outsiders with commercial gaming experience, time to get up to speed on the different regulations and cultures of tribal governments.

“We talk a lot about government, as it is the only other form of government-owned gaming in our country,” she explained. “We have state lotteries, but tribal gaming is the only government so far that runs casinos in the U.S.”

Another unique aspect of the curriculum, Spilde Contreras says, is its emphasis on the fact that tribal gaming has a “larger purpose” and is “bigger than the business”. All the classes offer a foundation to show what happens when net revenues from gaming are transferred to tribal governments and then get put to work, “as the federal law intended,” she said. 

As Werner at UNLV and Silver at Tulane have done, Spilde Contreras has brought practitioners and regulators and general managers and executives from the casino industry into the classroom. A general manager from a nearby casino might be the guest lecturer for one class and a tribal chairman for another. “We want to give exposure to both because, yes, the general manager might be your boss, but who you are really working for is the tribal community. Luckily, we have 10 casinos in San Diego County to draw from as far as expertise,” she said.

In much the same spirit as the endowment from the Sycuan Band that made the Institute on Tribal Gaming a reality, the Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers made a $300,000 contribution over three years to support curriculum at the College of Southern Nevada designed specifically for slot technicians. The college’s School of Applied and Advanced Technologies used the contribution to upgrade supplies and staff and buy a slot machine simulator.

“One mission of AGEM is to support education initiatives, and one of the best examples of this was our contribution to launch a slot technician curriculum at CSN with a goal of training technicians to enter the workplace and hopefully work for AGEM members or operators by having the skills needed,” said Marcus Prater, the association’s executive director.

Enrollment in the program has increased to some 250 students during the last three years, Prater says, and a text book documenting best practices is being developed. AGEM is looking to expand the slot curriculum at other schools across the country. As server-based gaming and networked casino floors push forward it seems likely that the job of slot technician will become a more technical task in the future. With that, AGEM and its members are acting to ensure that there is a ready supply of workers to fill the need.

Valuing education

Kathy Moore has 20-plus years of experience as a human resources professional, including many in the gaming industry. As vice president of human resources she led the team that hired some 2,200 people at the newly opened M Resort in Las Vegas. In her position Moore has not seen many applicants coming out of school with an education in gaming, more from hotel and hospitality schools. But she said she believes that degrees being offered specifically for casino and gaming operations are a positive sign for the industry.

“I’m pleased to see that the gaming industry has risen to the point to where it’s been justified to actually be a formalized curriculum at a college,” she said. “There are a lot of complexities in this business, from a gaming operations perspective, that until you really get inside the industry and really understand the inter-workings you probably wouldn’t guess it to be so.” 

Of course many operators also have in place their own executive-development programs which are specific to their properties’ operations and procedures. Harrah’s Rincon in California, for example, has a 12-week Supervisor Development Program specifically designed to provide “high-potential” supervisors exposure to the workings of departments that they may have been curious about or interested in working.

“Of the 50 supervisors who have participated 22 have transferred into other departments or have been promoted to a management position here at Harrah’s Rincon or at another Harrah’s Entertainment property,” said Peggy Keers, the casino’s vice president of human resources.

The trend toward more universities offering casino-specific educations goes against the ways things have been done in the industry for many years, say educators. Universities are attempting to equip students with the skills needed to become managers, and eventually executives, after or soon after graduation. As explained by UNLV’s Werner, the “classic gaming story” is the casino worker who began as a pit clerk and worked his way up to casino manager as opposed to the person who goes to school and gets a degree in gaming management. “That is slowly changing,” he said, “and students are finding more and more that a degree is giving them an opportunity to start at a higher level instead of working as a dealer and trying to get some sort of management job. Now they are being hired more directly into management jobs.”

A formal education in gaming at the university level has evolved, agrees Silver. And the mindsets of casinos around the country need to continue to evolve for further acceptance of the importance of education.

“We’ve really come a long way here in the South,” he said. “There was a stigma that education in casino studies was essentially teaching people how to be dealers. This is not the case; we are preparing students for management roles. For casinos it’s accepting education when you have people in management roles who didn’t go to college, and all of a sudden you have people with a college degree. There is this fear and intimidation. That attitude is definitely less so today; it’s been an evolutionary process, more and more over the years.”

Officials at UNLV and Tulane are sensitive to the idea that current gaming employees are also interested in their programs as vehicles for career advancement. One of Silver’s initiatives going forward is to upgrade Tulane’s online education and certification offering to allow working students as well as distance-learning students to participate. Silver also points out that many casino operators offer tuition reimbursement programs for their employees.

Lastly, with the souring of the global economy and the casino industry enduring its share of worker layoffs, experts say now might be the opportune time for casino employees to consider going back to school and upgrading their education credentials.

“Being an eternal optimist I know that the economy will turn around in the near future, so now would be a great time to learn something new,” said Char Coburn,  director of human resources for the Bonanza Casino in Reno, Nev. “The best way to learn to deal is to go to a dealer’s school. The best way to learn to work on a slot machine is to go to a trade school. On the other hand, if you are a casino worker who has been laid off, now might be a great time to go to a community college and learn accounting skills.”

Today’s casino world is a different one, Coburn said. From housekeeping in a megaresort to cocktail servers on a casino floor, jobs have a different flavor.

“We need to acknowledge that and train and prepare people for that.”