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Macau grapples with booming casino economy

Wednesday - 11/21/2012, 8:56am  ET

In this Nov. 25, 2012 photo, a gambling school students practice on a table in Macau, China. The students sitting around the roulette table are getting schooled on how to quickly calculate payoffs for the casino game by glancing at how the bets are placed. Elsewhere in the room, the biggest mock casino in Asia, other students are playing practice hands of blackjack or learning how to run a craps table. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

KELVIN CHAN
AP Business Writer

MACAU (AP) -- In a nondescript building around the corner from the world's biggest casino, students at the Macau Polytechnic Institute are in class. Huddled at a long table topped with green felt, they pay close attention as their instructor writes a series of diagrams and numbers on a whiteboard.

But this isn't a regular math lesson. The students sitting around the roulette table are getting schooled on how to quickly calculate payoffs for the casino game by glancing at how the chips are placed. Elsewhere in the room, the biggest mock casino in Asia, other students are playing practice hands of blackjack or learning how to run a craps table.

As many as 8,000 vocational students take courses at the institute's Gaming Teaching and Research Center each year, while a small number of students learn casino skills as part of degree courses. The center's popularity attests to Macau's rapid rise from a seedy backwater to the world's biggest gambling market after the government ended a casino monopoly a decade ago.

Foreign operators such as Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Wynn Resorts Ltd. have invested billions to build glitzy resorts, drawing tens of millions of Chinese gamblers annually that have supercharged the economy. The casino industry's surging growth has created tens thousands of well-paying jobs, raised living standards and boosted the city's economy. The casino boom has been largely peaceful, in contrast to the violence that rocked the city in the 1990s when triads, or Chinese criminal gangs, fought for control of the lucrative VIP rooms.

A wave of new casino megaresorts that are expected to open from mid-2015 will only bolster the former Portuguese colony's standing as the world's top gambling market. But they'll also add to the mixed blessing of a transformation that has produced a lopsided economy and society. Property prices have surged and inequality has widened. Some lament the embrace of materialism and the erosion of traditional community values.

"I have thought of another job, but the salaries at other jobs are lower than the casinos. Now I've become used to this lifestyle," said Marcos Wong, a 27-year-old VIP room supervisor at the Grand Lisboa casino earning 20,000 patacas ($2,500) a month, much higher than the average wage in Macau, a special administrative region of China.

"We didn't have a lot of money when I was growing up so of course I had to study more to try to change my destiny. But to change one's destiny, the reality is you need a lot of money," said Wong, one of the degree students taking the roulette class. He works night shifts while taking courses during the day to upgrade his skills in the hopes of being promoted to a managerial position.

Voracious demand for casino workers has driven Macau's unemployment rate to an ultralow 2 percent. The city's young are in high demand thanks to government restrictions on the number of foreign workers. Casino jobs are popular because the pay is two-thirds higher than the city's median monthly income of 11,700 patacas ($1,465) and many positions don't even require a high school diploma.

But there are drawbacks, including the stress of dealing with customers on losing streaks who become unruly or aggressive.

Student Fion Choi said some gamblers will demand that dealers and supervisors smile and remember their names.

"But then when they lose lots of money they'll say: Why are you smiling?" said Choi, a 29-year-old supervisor at Wynn Macau who hopes to land a mid or senior level management job after she graduates.

Then there's the surreal experience of watching high rollers winning and losing huge amounts of money.

Wong says gamblers, who are almost always mainland Chinese, will bet up to a million patacas ($130,000) on a single hand of baccarat and blow cigarette smoke into his face if they lose.

"We see more and more of these customers," said Wong. "I don't understand how they get their money. They come from a different society where this kind of thinking is normal."

Casino jobs pay 30 percent to 40 percent more than those at other companies, said Choi. That's adding to the strain on small businesses, which struggle to survive because they can't compete with the higher wages.

University graduates, meanwhile, can't find jobs that pay as much as the starting salaries offered by casinos, said Larry So, a political commentator, who worries about the impact all the newfound wealth is having on the city's young.

"The young people nowadays, one of their favorite jobs is to go into a casino, or the government," said So, lamenting the changes that the casino industry has wrought on Macau.

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