Michigan College Students Look Toward Casino Careers

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LANSING — Michigan is home to large and small, tribal and commercial casinos from Detroit to the Upper Peninsula. The relatively new and growing industry swept through the state promising well-paid jobs with full benefits.

Those promises are catching the attention of Michigan college students.

“We have three courses specifically geared to casinos,” said Professor John Tarras of Michigan State University’s hospitality business school. “Those classes are always full, with waiting lists. There are a lot of students interested in getting into the industry — a lot more than we have room for.”

Tarras attributes this interest to the allure of the unknown. “It’s only been in the last 10-12 years or so that casinos have spread across the country. Students are especially curious and excited because it’s an entertainment industry, but I tell them that really means they'll be working long hours on holidays while everyone else is playing.”

Jennifer Lewis of Twin Lake, a hospitality business major at Central Michigan University, says unusual hours are part of the draw. “I originally wanted to become a corporate lawyer. As I progressed through my freshman year I realized that I would be bored by a typical 9-to-5 job. Casinos offer a constantly changing work environment, built on fantasy. I can’t think of a better job than entertaining people.”

Lewis, who has taken business, hospitality and gaming courses, speaks from experience. While at Central, she works for nearby Soaring Eagle Casino Resort in Mount Pleasant.

This term, she’s taking advantage of one of Central’s unique opportunities — students who concentrate on entertainment industry hospitality spend a 15-week term taking advanced gaming courses at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

“We’re learning from top surveillance experts, marketing vice presidents and former Nevada Gaming Control Board agents,” said Lewis. “They offer inside information that we wouldn’t be able to get elsewhere.”

Classroom experience often leads to casino experience as many students take advantage of their location to find internships, and possibly permanent employment, in Las Vegas. This year’s students may not be so lucky, however.

“Since Sept. 11, I’ve been told hotel occupancy in Vegas is down to 50 percent,” said Gary Gagnon, a marketing and hospitality professor at Central. “Our students graduating in December are worried about immediate concerns — getting jobs during a hiring freeze and layoffs.”

Lewis suggests that one way the industry might avoid future short-term financial crises is by developing Internet gaming. Both she and Mike Eldridge of Rochester, also currently studying in Las Vegas, are sticking to their casino career plans.

Eldridge has his all mapped out: “Ideally, I will get a job in MGM Grand in Las Vegas and work there for a couple of years, then transfer to MGM Detroit. After working in that casino for a few more years, I’d like to work for the Michigan Gaming Control Board, mainly for the stable hours.” The control board licenses and regulates Detroit casinos, and oversees Native American casinos in the state.

Gagnon says Eldridge’s Michigan loyalty is common among his students. “I think the real growth and potential in our program is not to feed workers to Las Vegas or Atlantic City, but to train Michigan students to manage Michigan casinos.”

Gagnon also stresses that Central’s program prepares students for management positions, not entry-level jobs. “As the competition between casinos grows, their need for trained management personnel will grow.”

MSU’s Tarras notes that good casino jobs, starting at $30,000 to $40,000 a year, are available to someone with only a high school diploma, “but you can only get so far. Our students may start with entry-level jobs but have the training and credentials to move up to better paying, more rewarding positions.”

Frank Cloutier, a representative of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, says that Soaring Eagle Casino Resort employees at all levels get individual attention.

“We hire associates with the purpose of starting them on a career path. The industry has a high turnover rate, but we work hard to retain our employees.”

For example, Soaring Eagle offers employees specialized training and full benefits, including medical insurance, retirement plans and life, dental and optical insurance.

Cloutier says, “The tribe has started a strong, cooperative, workable relationship with Central Michigan University. This hasn’t always been the case in the past. We attribute the current good feelings mostly to a progressive president and the desire of the tribe to establish and nurture relations.

“No pun intended, but we’re the two biggest games in town. We need to start working cooperatively.”

Some Michigan casinos are “the biggest game” for several towns combined. “We’re the largest employer in three counties,” said Beth Webber, human resources director for the Lac Vieux Desert Resort Casino in Watersmeet.

Near the western end of the Upper Peninsula, eight miles from the Wisconsin border, the Lac Vieux Desert Band owns and operates a casino ... and more.

“Our casino has table games, blackjack, craps and roulette. We have about 700 slot machines, a bingo hall, full-service restaurant, snack bar, sports bar and lounge, motel with a swimming pool and the U.P.’s largest hot tub, a nine-hole golf course and location right on the snowmobile trail,” said Webber.

Next spring should find construction complete on a convention center and a 50-room addition to the motel. Like the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe, the Lac Vieux Desert Band started with a small operation that grew quickly, built its large casino/resort in 1996, and has grown since.

Both Soaring Eagle and Lac Vieux give hiring preferences to tribal members, and secondarily, other Native Americans. Soaring Eagle’s staff is 14 percent Native American; Lac Vieux’s is 15 percent.

Webber says that, because of its location, the Lac Vieux casino doesn’t get many college graduates as job applicants. “If they come in with education and experience we’re lucky, but I feel it’s more of how each individual applies themselves.”

Central’s Eldridge predicts that Michigan casinos will continue to grow and compete. “I see the gaming industry becoming over-saturated within the next decade. Even in Las Vegas, the casinos are changing marketing strategies to better advertise all of the things people can do that don’t involve gambling.” Eldridge says the future of Michigan gaming will rely on casinos broadening their appeal.

His professor agrees. Gagnon points to trends in Detroit, and says that expansion will offer even more opportunities for students like Eldridge.

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