The 1,000-pataca chips are stacked in their trays, cards dance across the 58 gaming tables and slot machines whir in the background. But this is better than a casino. It's the only place in Macau where you can gamble all day without losing a cent. Of course, a winning hand in the dealer training course at the Macau Tourism and Casino Career Centre doesn't pay any money, either. But for an increasing number of residents, it is a quick ticket to a lucrative job in the city's roaring casino industry, which last year raked in $40 billion in gaming revenues - second only to Las Vegas. Established by the government in 2003 and free to Macau residents, the centre aims to turn out 3,000 to 4,000 casino workers annually. Last week, it graduated a class of 1,500 prospective card dealers, slot technicians and other service workers. Still, that's far from enough to quell a massive labour shortage that is building in Macau. In the second half of last year, the number of vacancies in the gaming industry rose 44 per cent to 7,104. Unemployment in the enclave's 240,000-strong labour force is marginal at 4.1 per cent and continues to fall. At the same time, average salaries have surged 16 per cent year on year for two consecutive quarters. Meanwhile, the director of Macau's Labour Affairs Bureau, Shuen Ka-hung, estimates new projects in the next five years will create an additional 80,000 jobs. 'The demand for human resources will be, obviously, large,' he said. However, despite calls from the business community, the government has been reluctant to open the gates to imported workers. 'If you don't let in more people, Macau will keep on hiring until there's nobody else left to employ,' casino king Stanley Ho Hung-sun said last week. Mr Ho suggested doubling the workforce by bringing in 200,000 people over the next 10 years, mainly from Hong Kong, to stay apace of the growing market. 'The population of Macau is really just too small,' he said. Mr Shuen sees things differently. 'If we don't import foreign workers, then salaries will increase faster because there won't be enough people,' he said. 'Casinos must find local people first ... we have no timetable yet for importing foreign workers.' At the end of March, there were only 28,648 non-resident workers in Macau. Sixty-six per cent of those were mainlanders employed mainly in textile factories or massage parlours. While the number of foreigners in the gaming industry nearly tripled from a year earlier to 1,656, they accounted for less than 6 per cent of all non-resident labour in Macau. The government places tight restrictions on the amount of foreign labour casinos can bring in. Operators are permitted to import upper management, skilled professionals and even pit bosses. Indeed, the casino career centre even teaches Cantonese to Nepali Gurkhas working as security guards at the Sands casino. But to date, all dealers must be hired locally. 'They make us jump through some hoops,' said Grant Bowie, president of Wynn Macau, which plans to employ about 4,200 workers when its resort opens next year and an additional 2,300 staff when an expansion is completed in 2007. 'But the government is very aware that in order to maximise opportunities the labour market must expand.' In the meantime, the relatively closed market has created a bonanza for job-seeking locals, especially for dealers. The casino career centre's dealer training course has about 1,300 names on its waiting list, and for good reason. While the median salary in Macau stood at 5,680 patacas a month in the first quarter, graduates of the four-month course can command a starting wage of about 11,000 patacas, more than new university graduates. For people like Jason Au, those prospects are too good to refuse. The 20-year-old finished Form 6 last year at a high school in Guangzhou, where he was studying Cantonese opera. But he came back to Macau and started working as a barman at the Sands. He quit because the pay was too low, he says, and signed up for the dealer training course. Mr Au will graduate at the end of this month, and is hoping to land a job at the Wynn resort. 'There should be lots of opportunities,' he said. 'I can't wait.' While making sure that locals fill the frontline trenches, Macau is also pushing to move residents up the value chain. The government-funded Institute for Tourism Studies runs four-year degree programmes in tourism and hospitality. Enrolment in the bachelor's degree programmes jumped from 200 students in 2002 to 700 today, with a further 6,000 students in adult education programmes. The school plans to add majors in events management and heritage management to the curriculum from September. To resolve the labour shortage 'we need to find a balance that secures the rights of local workers without impeding the development of casinos', said institute president Fanny Vong Chuk-kwan. Dr Vong is confident that imported labour will not affect her students' chances of landing management positions in the industry. Although the school is working with the casinos, they have not made any promises about hiring. 'If you look at the vacancies we're expecting, we don't need a guarantee,' Dr Vong said.