Betting on niche programs

College of Southern Nevada offers a slot machine repair technician associate degree, designed to support local industry. (Photo: CSN)

Programs like nursing, welding, computer science and communications are found at many if not most community colleges. And then there are degree and certificate offerings like cannabis cultivation, slot machine repair and gunsmithing technology that aren’t exactly a dime a dozen — and yet they are an important part of both their respective academic catalogs and local employers’ recruiting pipelines.

Planning these programs requires a careful analysis at the outset to ensure that enough sustainable jobs exist to make them worthwhile for students. Administrators and faculty need to decide whether to start small or dive in all at once and develop a full program. They need to strategize how to market programs and recruit students. And they need to continue to analyze workforce trends to ensure programs stay current — and to plan for the future.

To develop programs to serve its local students and job market, the College of Southern Nevada (CSN) necessarily has offered some degrees and certificates “that are very Vegas,” says Michael Spangler, dean of advanced and applied technologies. About 15 years ago, when about two dozen casinos expressed a need, the college began offering a slot machine repair technician associate degree that’s part of its engineering technology program.

Editor’s note: This excerpt comes from an article in the current issue of the Community College Journal, which the American Association of Community Colleges has published since 1930.

“Slot tech obviously was developed initially to support the local industry because slot machines have become progressively more electronic and more complex, with everything from touch screens to LCD panels,” Spangler says. “They are effectively a microcomputer controlling a number of peripheral devices. Slot machine technicians have to be electronics people, they have to be computer people, and they have to be network people.”

A demand all over

The gaming industry can take alumni of the program far beyond Las Vegas. More remote casinos like those on Indian reservations struggle to find qualified technicians, Spangler says, while Vegas-based casinos have been investing heavily in China.

“There’s a demand there as well for skilled slot techs,” he says.

The slot technology technician program also effectively trains students to work on not only slot machines but also ATMs or scanners at the grocery store or gas pump, Spangler notes.

“They are all computer-controlled peripherals with card readers, bill validators, a printer and touch screens. It’s all the same skill sets,” he says.

A student who completes the program can get a license from the Nevada Gaming Control Board — but they also could work for a company like Diebold servicing ATMs or voting machines.

“It sounds very Vegas to call it ‘slot repair,’” he says, “but the reality is, it’s for any automated user interface.”

Building out

The slot tech program is an outgrowth of the college’s electronics program, and students learn the basics of that program, including topics like DC and AC, microprocessors, digital logic and soldering, Spangler says.

“This becomes an application that stacks on top of that core,” he says.

That’s a common approach for building programs at the college, adds Arthur Eggers, a professor and interim director of engineering technology.

“We look at what our existing core is — usually six or seven courses that are fairly common,” he says. “And then, for this particular emphasis or discipline, what do we need to add? You’ll find a fairly solid thread of these courses we’ve always taught, and then, like a Christmas tree, we hang a few more bulbs.”

Marketing the program and recruiting students largely takes care of itself, Spangler says, although CSN reaches out to local high schools and ensures that students understand what the program is about; for example, many confuse engineering technology with engineering.

“We don’t produce engineers; we produce technologists,” he says. “It’s making sure people understand the distinction.”

Certain area employers tell new hires that if they take a certain number of courses, the employer will pay for the remainder of their education; and those who have taken courses in the program often “get an immediate interview, no questions asked,” Eggers says. “They keep their pipeline primed with our students.”

Not just in Vegas

Other industries that are “very Vegas” include data centers and server farms, which serve companies like eBay, Amazon and Google, which need skilled information technology networking employees, Spangler says. And nearby Nellis Air Force Base, the largest active-duty facility in the country, “desperately needs skilled electronics technicians,” he says.

Gaming technology programs at two-year colleges aren’t limited to Vegas. Erie Community College (SUNY Erie) in the Buffalo, New York, area offers a casino gaming machine repair technician program. The program has been around since the mid-1980s, says Joseph Rivera, adjunct professor and a longtime technician at a Native American casino, who graduated in the original class, in 1985.

At the time, casino facilities in the area were all Native American run and all Class 2 facilities, which can have high-stakes bingo, video slot machines and the like but no table games. Now, full Class 3 casinos have come to the area, also run by the Seneca Nation, which has increased the demand for people with Rivera’s skills.

SUNY Erie offers both a computer repair technology degree program and a casino gaming certificate. Students, who include both those new to the industry as well as veterans, learn components, circuit testing and safety issues, as well as advanced electronic skills, computer logic and microprocessors.

“A lot of students cross over (from computer repair to casino gaming), so they can get a job in the industry,” Rivera says. “Everything is plug-and-play in the industry, all basically run by a computer, server-based. They’ve got the basic knowledge about how machines are run.”

Read the full story in CC Journal.

About the Author

Ed Finkel
is an education writer based in Illinois.