Harsha Wijesuriya decided to return to college after 10 years to train for a career in the gaming industry.
Schenectady County Community College launched its casino gaming program this fall, and Wijesuriya enrolled with the goal of becoming a casino host in the next couple of years.
“Being a casino host has always been an interest of mine,” he said. “It is perfect timing with full casinos coming to the area, and I figured I would take advantage of this new opportunity and get my foot in the door with a degree.”
SCCC’s two-year associate degree program in casino and gaming management teaches students how to run live table games as well as skills in accounting, marketing, promotion development, and security and surveillance.
The program comes at a time when full-scale casinos are preparing to launch in New York, following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s legislation allowing a total of four casinos with live table games in the Capital Region, Catskills and Southern Tier.
Saratoga Casino and Raceway is bidding for a full-scale casino license in the Capital Region. The raceway is currently working on a $30 million expansion that includes a hotel, event space and restaurant, which is slated to be up and running next year.
“They have a continual need for new people, and that’s what we have heard across the board,” said Kim Otis, lead instructor of the gaming program. “I think that demand has also amped up in response to the legislation. They are very excited about the opportunity to have a batch of students ready to come in and work.”
Saratoga Casino formed a partnership with SCCC, providing the program’s students with a $10,000 annual scholarship, which gives four students $2,500. The program has a total of 28 students. Tuition for full-time students at SCCC is $6,768 a year, and $282 per credit hour for part-time students.
Next spring, Saratoga Casino will open its doors for students to complete a semester-long internship, which is a requirement for the degree program.
“The internship will be broad-based and cover as many areas of our business as possible,” said Rita Cox, the casino’s spokeswoman. “More in-depth opportunities will be determined based upon the students themselves.”
While interning at the casino, students will work with the food and beverage department and gaming operations team. Interns will learn first-hand how the gaming floor works.
The casino is always hiring and there are always jobs available, Cox said. She said the casino is excited to provide students with the opportunity to get involved as their business continues to grow.
“Our goal is to hire locally and provide opportunities for advancement from within,” Cox said. “It is very difficult to find people with experience in gaming operations. This program will help us find qualified candidates.”
Cox said most of the casino's employees are trained on site. She said bringing in local students with some background in the industry would make starting a job at the casino a smooth transition.
SCCC's casino gaming program is the only one in the Capital Region. SUNY at Morrisville, which is about 100 miles west of Schenectady, also has a gaming and casino management program.
Otis said she is in discussions with Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, Oneida County, for students to have the option to intern there. The Oneida Indian Nation operates the casino.
“Turning Stone has been incredibly supportive,” Otis said. “They have mentioned the possibility of housing along with the internship and are also willing to do some events with us. They are very anxious to have some job candidates from our program.”
As part of the SCCC program, students participate in a lab course where they learn how to play and run casino games including craps, poker and roulette. Students take turns playing the games and acting as the dealer.
But it isn’t just fun and games. Otis assigned students with a semester-long research project, which includes assignments every two weeks that are specific to the industry. One of the assignments requires students to interview a professional in the field.
“They have to speak to someone that’s doing the career they think they would like to do,” she said. “They reached out to professionals all over the world and talked to some amazing individuals.”
There are six classes specific to the 60-credit gaming program, which is part of SCCC's school of hotel, culinary arts and tourism. Other courses include tourism development, human-resource management and food and beverage control.
Students enrolled in the program range from having little knowledge about the industry to licensed working professionals. Wijesuriya said he already knows how to play the games, but he is learning new things about casino operations.
“The thing I like most is that there are three or four of us that are about 30 years old and came back to school for this program,” he said. “We have played these games and know the rules. But there are many things I haven’t learned. This program legitimizes my knowledge and makes it official.”
Otis said she has been tweaking the curriculum as the program moves into its second semester. But some information is difficult to track down, such as the details of a casino’s security operations.
“It is challenging at times because a lot of it is privileged information,” she said. “The security and surveillance people don’t necessarily want everyone knowing how it works. But for us, it gives us a foundation for how an entire casino operates.”
Denise Murphy McGraw, chair of SCCC’s Board of Trustees, said the ultimate goal of the program is to develop and retain jobs in the gaming industry in the region and statewide.
She said the college is planning to reach out to casino operators that are looking to establish full-scale casinos in New York, and partner with them to expand the program.
“It is incumbent upon us to be able to develop those relationships with the full-scale casino operators in this region and in the other regions,” she said. “We can be the premier workforce developer for regions impacted by this new opportunity, and we’re very excited about that.”