MACAU — 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.
This isn’t a 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. 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 of thousands of well-paying jobs, raised living standards and boosted the city’s economy.
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.
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.
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.
“I don’t understand how they get their money,” Wong said.
The number of people working in gambling and related industries has doubled over the past seven years to nearly 90,000, or about a quarter of the workforce. About 23,000 are dealers.
Larry So, a political commentator, said that because of casino workers’ influence on society, Macau people are more materialistic and care more for fast cash than careers.
Macau’s casino boom has also reshaped the landscape of the 11-square-mile city. Flashy, oversized resorts built in the Cotai district, including Sands Corp.’s Venetian Macao, the world’s biggest casino, have added a brash and jarring contrast to the city’s European-style architecture.
Public discontent is rising over a sharply widening wealth gap and surging property prices. The government, which earns more than 70 percent of its tax revenue from casinos, has tried to pacify the public by giving annual cash handouts to each resident.
City Chief Executive Fernando Chui also announced plans to provide more housing for residents and offer interest-free loans to young entrepreneurs.
But some are skeptical such measures will make any difference.