Category Archives: Labor & workforce

Free the Data!

data

by James A. Bacon

I’m not sure if this idea will lead anywhere but it’s worth a try: The Commonwealth of Virginia has released an open data set of job postings in the state with the hope that someone will come up with innovative ways to use it.

The initiative arises from an executive order by Governor Terry McAuliff establishing the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Research and Statistics that, according to the Washington Business Journal, aims to improve labor market, workforce and education data.

“The data is available, and now we are gearing toward finding ways to make insights,” said Kim McKay, a research and policy analyst at the Council on Virginia’s Future, one of the program’s sponsors. “It’s important to note that this is a early stage pilot program.”

“This is the first time any state has taken online job postings and curated it for public use,” said Aneesh Chopra, co-founder of Arlington-based Hunch Analytics and a former secretary of technology of Virginia. “The governor made the goal to make the labor market work better … and this is a down payment on the idea.”

Chopra hopes that businesses will start finding uses for the data, just as the weather forecasting industry created applications that fed off government-compiled weather data.

Bacon’s bottom line: I’m not smart enough to imagine how the data, comprised of public and private job listings dispersed across multiple job sites, can be used. Maybe someone will come up with a brilliant idea, maybe nothing will come of it. In either case, state government is spending next to nothing to make the data available. It’s worth a try. Perhaps this initiative will lead to the liberation of other data sets and spark the creation of entirely new information products.

Rocky Mountain High Real Estate Values

Street scene in Aspen, Colo.

Street view in Aspen, Colo.

by James A. Bacon

According to a 2011 Wall Street Journal article, Aspen, Colo., could boast of having the most expensive real estate in the country. I don’t know if that’s still true, but I wouldn’t be surprised. As I sit here blogging at Ink! Coffee, looking upon a patio filled with Pellegrino umbrellas and baskets of bright mountain flowers while perusing the real estate ads in The Aspen Times, it quickly becomes clear that this is a place where I could never afford to live. A 3,414-square-foot home with a view of Aspen Mountain and within walking distance of downtown is on the market for $4,995,000. Select neighborhoods in Manhattan might be more expensive on a per-square-foot basis — I don’t pretend to know the national real estate market — but there cannot be many places that are.

Prone as I am to over-thinking absolutely everything, I have been asking myself, how did Aspen get to be one of the most desirable locations in the planet, while small mountain towns in Virginia with comparable natural beauty slide into senescence? Does Aspen provide lessons that Virginia communities can learn from — not with the unrealistic aim of becoming a playground of the one percent, but with the modest goal of attracting tourists and retirees, supporting jobs, lifting the tax base, and paying for amenities that make life more enjoyable for the people who live there?

In the article that follows, I will endeavor to address those questions, fully cognizant that anything I say is based upon the hasty and superficial impressions. My methodology is simple: I stroll around town with iPhone camera in hand and an eye to observing land use, architecture, transportation, and the retail scene. As always, I pay attention to the quality of the public sphere and the “small spaces.” When possible, I engage people in conversation. As it happens, Aspeners (or Aspenites, whatever they call themselves) are incredibly friendly and eager to talk about their fair city.

Aspen got its start in the late 1880s as a silver-mining boom town. When the silver boom went bust, so did the town. Fortunes did not revive until 1946 when Friedl Pfeifer, a former Austrian skiing champion, linked up with industrialist Walter Paepcke and his wife Elizabeth to form the Aspen Skiing Corporation. The town’s most enduring resource, as it turned out, was not silver but world-class skiing.

The inter-mountain west has many  popular ski resorts, but none has done as well as Aspen at winning name recognition and attracting the super-rich. One key to its phenomenal success, I would suggest, is its silver-mining inheritance: a downtown laid out in a classic grid street pattern, a number of handsome brick buildings, and a municipal government intent upon preserving that heritage. Aspen has something that many of its ski-resort peers does not: walkability. Admittedly, Aspen isn’t the only walkable ski town — Jackson, Wyoming, springs to mind — so pedestrian ambiance is not exclusively responsible for vaulting it into the real estate stratosphere. But a comparison with Virginia/West Virginia ski resorts such as Wintergreen, Snowshoe and Massanutten lacking downtown districts suggest that walkability is a critical differentiator.

Downtown Aspen, comprising about two dozen blocks, is a destination in itself, and real estate ads tout houses’ proximity to the urban center. While the “Mountain Modern” style of architecture often presents a jarring contrast with the 1880s-era buildings, the overall effect is still magical. Visitors come to Aspen, fall in love, and gladly pay a premium to buy a house or condominium that allows them to live here.

Aspen5

Not only are historic buildings from Aspen’s silver-mining past architecturally distinctive but they help define the walkable street space.

Walkability

One of the first things my wife, friends and I noticed when strolling around downtown was the paucity of cars. Traffic was negligible. I assumed the empty streets reflected the lassitude of the summer season at a skiing destination. But a friendly acquaintance, a commodities trader who moved here from Chicago, assured me otherwise. We were, in fact, experiencing peak downtown traffic. Summer tourism is booming, and a lot of people bring their own cars and four-wheel drives to take advantage of the hiking, fishing, rock climbing, and whitewater rafting.

While cars may be scarce, human beings are everywhere. The ability to live here without driving is a prime attraction. People can meet most of their daily needs by walking and biking. The commodities trader said he goes a week at a time without ever stepping in a car. Another acquaintance, a native Philadelphian who lives here eight months of the year and does business in New York, said when he recently sold a Jeep he’d owned twelve years, it only had 15,000 miles on it.

Uncongested streets are the result of thoughtful design. Aspen hews to the rules of classical urbanism. For starters, the buildings define the street space. Rather than standing out and saying, “Hey, look at me” with egocentric starchitect designs, they conform with one another in size, height and relationship to the street. By abutting the sidewalks, their facades delineate the public space of the sidewalk realm. While you won’t see many cars driving around, plenty are using the on-street parking — and that’s a good thing. Parked cars and building facades bracket the pedestrian domain as a distinct space. This pedestrian realm, as I shall describe, is adorned by flower gardens, rain gardens, statuary, street seating, and window shopping that make it extraordinarily inviting. Continue reading

The Renaissance of the Artisan Class

Clyde Jenkins, maker of white oak baskets

Clyde Jenkins, maker of white oak baskets

by James A. Bacon

I’ve been giving some thought to why I’m so fascinated with the maker movement, and I think I’ve finally found the answer. As a self-employed writer I identify with other artisans and craftsmen who make a living through their creativity and hard work. Marx and Lenin might refer to people like us as the “petite bourgeoisie” — a class distinct from the propertiless proletariat, the landed gentry and the wealthy capitalists. We value grit, hard work, self-sufficiency and independence. We don’t ask much from government; we just want to be left alone. We worry about the corrupting influence of the welfare state on the work ethic of the underclass, we resent how the rich use the power of government to augment their wealth, and we are suspicious of do-gooder crusaders who use government to coerce us to conform to their latest enthusiasms.

Yesterday my family and I visited the Spring Jubilee in Goochland County, west of Richmond, set in the beautiful Rassawek Vineyard. There were wine tastings, musicians, hay rides, boat rides, painters and artisan exhibits. I found myself drawn to the artisans — not just to see their work, which was uniformly interesting, but to hear their stories. Most exhibitors have reached a point in their lives where they can make a living following their passion. A few work regular jobs and pursue their crafts as a serious hobby or in the hope of transitioning to a self-supporting endeavor.

The post-World War II age of mass automation was cruel to the petite bourgeoisie in America. Giant companies with national brands backed by massive advertising campaigns obliterated the small craftsman. But tastes have changed. The 21st century is experiencing a “maker” renaissance. People are rebelling against the national brands. They don’t want the same thing everyone else has. They want unique possessions that no one else has; they want to know the story behind the chair they’re sitting on or the wine glass they’re sipping from; and they want a personal relationship with the craftsman — whether he or she is brewing beer or converting junkyard metal into art.

Pundits on the left and right fret about the “decline of the middle class” as robots and artificial intelligence puts millions of Americans out of work. Searching for a livelihood and meaningful existence in a robot/AI-dominated world, millions will turn to the maker movement, giving rise to a modern American analogue to Merry Olde England’s independent artisans and yeoman farmers. None of these people are celebrated by the chi chi fashion centers of New York and Hollywood. If anything, their tastes and creations are likely to be derided as plebian and unsophisticated. But the makers could very well grow into a social movement that will transform the nature of the economy and, if they ever develop an awareness of their common values and interests, the political arena.

The bearded fellow atop this post is Clyde Jenkins. He was born and raised in Page County, in the northern Shenandoah Valley, where he picked up the old-time craft of basket weaving. He makes the baskets from white oak, from which he makes the “splits” that he weaves into baskets, as seen in the photo. Jenkins has split so much wood for so many baskets over the years that the knife has created a permanent dent in his thumb. He also does stone masonry and claims he has a ten-year backlog of projects, which suggests a significant pent-up demand for his skill. If I had a ten-year backlog of writing work, I said, I’d double my rates and settle for a one- or two-year backlog. Why doesn’t he raise his rates? He couldn’t really explain why he didn’t. It just didn’t seem to be right, he said.

Hiroshi Awano

Hiroshi Awano

Hiroshi Awano was born and raised in Japan, where he learned the craft of traditional Japanese woodworking. He married an American gal and settled in Fluvanna County, where he works in wood, creating everything from intricate  panels like the once seen at left to entire Japanese-style gazebos. Even his tools are works of art. Instead of marking lines by snapping a string laden with chalk, as many American craftsmen do, he draws the string through elaborately carved pots of ink made by previous masters of wood working.

Chelsea Pearman, of Goochland County, learned taxidermy from her father-in-law. Here she’s seen with one of her works, a beaver gnawing on a tree. When asked if she minds carving up dead animals, she smiles and says, no, she’s been a hunter all her life.

Continue reading

Tech’s “Smart Infrastructure” Initiative Progresses

Virginia Tech's Goodwin Hall: traditional hokie stone on the outside, braniac smart building on the inside

Virginia Tech’s Goodwin Hall: traditional hokie stone on the outside, braniac smart building on the inside

by James A. Bacon

Virginia Tech has been re-thinking for a several years now how to invigorate traditional engineering disciplines by integrating civil engineering and computer engineering to create “smart infrastructure.” The $100 million initiative received a $5 million boost yesterday from the Hitt family, owners of Falls Church-based Hitt Contraction, a company that typically recruits eight to ten Virginia Tech graduates every year, according to the Washington Business Journal.

The Tech initiative is incredibly timely. In arguably the biggest revolution since the invention of structural steel that made possible the construction of new classes of bridges and skyscrapers in the 1930s, the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) is introducing radical change to the construction industry. The IoT is a catch phrase for the integration of ubiquitous sensors into buildings and structures that generate data that can be used to improve performance.

An in-house Virginia Tech article made note last year of Virginia Tech’s “Smart Infrastructure Laboratory,” which includes smart building technology that, among other things, can guide occupants to safety during disasters, and its Structural Systems and Lifecycle Reliability Team, which works at the intersection of engineering materials and systems to advance structural safety, resiliency and durability.

Virginia Tech’s Goodwin Hall … is known as the world’s most-instrumented building for measurement of vibrations. Measuring motion and vibration inside and outside the walls, 212 accelerometers can detect even the slightest movement. The sensors feed data into data acquisition boxes via 65,000 feet of cable interconnecting the entire system. Data can be used to save energy costs, guide maintenance crews, or deploy first responders in an emergency.

The Structural Systems and Lifecycle Reliability Team has a measurement and visualization system that can generate 3-D representations of any object or environment over time. These models can identify gradual changes such as a gusset plate buckling in a bridge or cracks in a building after an earthquake. The system has been used to measure deformations in a steel plate wall and in the field to identify cracks in a concrete bridge over the James River.

Virginia Tech will start work in January on “Hitt Hall” for smart construction and another unnamed building for intelligent design. Meanwhile, Tech is expanding and linking its smart road partnership with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), its smart city partnership with Arlington County, and a 300-acre “smart neighborhood” to serve as a proving ground for new technologies.

Bacon’s bottom line: The Internet of Things is revolutionizing the built environment — everything from buildings to roads and bridges, from waste water systems to electric grids. The cost of sensors is plummeting, and so is the cost of transmitting data to the Cloud. The idea of “smart” bridges and “smart” buildings is not hype — it’s real. It’s here. And leading construction companies like Hitt are building teams that can pull all the pieces together. Tech is wisely making the program multidisciplinary, opening it up to engineers, business majors and students in other study areas, reports the WBJ, “as the lines between technology, infrastructure and business continue to blur.”

I can’t believe that Virginia Tech is the only university exploiting this opportunity — I don’t track what other institutions are doing — but at the very least it deserves kudos for being an early mover. Hopefully, Virginia-based companies like Hitt Construction will tap graduates with the new skill sets to gain a competitive economic advantage in the marketplace.

Meanwhile, Virginia political and government leaders would do well to acquaint themselves with the state-of-the-art work at Virginia Tech and start thinking creatively how to apply the Internet of Things to Virginia’s own infrastructure. The potential maintenance savings from the application of smart technologies to government-owned buildings, utilities and transportation infrastructure is immense. The potential to optimize transportation systems, conserve energy and reduce man’s impact on the environment is transformative. VDOT and Arlington County are ahead of the curve. Everyone else needs to get with the program.

Pulse Has a Pulse after All

Click for larger image.

Click for larger image.

by James A. Bacon

When last I blogged about Richmond Pulse, the Bus Rapid Transit plan for the city’s Broad Street corridor, the projected cost had leaped $11.5 million over its original $50 million estimate. While I support mass transit in the right circumstances, I saw little good coming from this project, in which state and federal authorities had helicoptered dollars upon the Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC) and the city had done little to create the conditions — zoning for appropriate land use, funding streetscaping and planning for intermodal connectivity — needed to make the project a success.

I was worried that I might have offended my old buddies in the local Smart Growth community by my unsparing criticism of the transit project. As it turns out, I need not have worried. They shared the same concerns. Indeed, they have been working feverishly through the planning process to correct the obvious deficiencies.

“Typically plans for transit projects sit on the shelf for years while agencies try to find funding,”  says Trip Pollard, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, “but in this case, while some planning certainly had been done, the funding got ahead of the planning.”

The project, which runs 7.6 miles from Rocketts Landing at the east end of the city to the Willow Lawn mall at the west end, is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2017. Planners have moved into high gear trying to catch up. Two important studies should be complete this fall.

The Richmond Regional Transit Vision Plan will create a regional transit vision plan to stakeholders and the public that will guide transit development in the region through 2040. The idea is for Pulse to be part of a more comprehensive regional transit system.

The Broad and East Main Street Corridor Plan will focus on the Pulse corridor, identifying where development should occur, what development should look like and how it should happen.

Meanwhile, the Richmond Transit Network Plan will rethink the design of the city’s bus network in the context of Pulse. For example, will Pulse free up GRTC resources to improve service on other routes? How can regular bus routes interface with Pulse? Can GRTC optimize its bus service in other ways? Jarrett Walker + Associates, renowned for its re-engineering of the Houston bus system, will conduct the study. That should be complete next year.

As a bonus, the U.S Department of Transportation is providing technical assistance in the Ladders of Opportunity Transportation Empowerment Pilot Initiative to promote Transit-Oriented Development in the low-income Fulton community, whose residents are expected to use the BRT to reach jobs in the West End.

While implementation of the Pulse project has not exactly risen to a top-of-mind issue in Richmond’s highly competitive mayoral race, “there is a mobilized civic community,” says Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Civic leaders are determined to make sure the project is done right.

The Smart Growth community has a lot riding on this project. If Pulse crashes and burns, it will undermine political support for more mass transit funding in the Richmond region. Conversely, if the project is successful, it could pave the way for a regional system.

Thumbs up for Virginia Undergrad Business Schools

mcintire

McIntire School of Commerce

The new Bloomberg ranking of undergraduate business programs in the United States provides the following rankings among the top 100:

University of Virginia (McIntire): No. 5
College of William & Mary (Mason): 12
James Madison: 41
University of Richmond (Robins): 46
Virginia Tech (Pamplin): 64

Virginia universities may not be leaders in R&D, but they produce a wealth of human capital. It would be really interesting to know how many graduates of these business school pursue careers in Virginia. The fact that McIntire, Mason and Robins are rated much higher by students than by employers suggests that they are under-recruited by business, particularly out-of-state firms. I would conjecture that a disproportionate number of these grads stay in Virginia. That may or may not be good for them professionally, but is undoubtedly beneficial to the Virginia economy.

— JAB

Coal’s Messy End Game

coal_minersby James A. Bacon

The U.S. coal industry is in collapse. Market forces in the form of cheap, abundant natural gas have put coal at a huge competitive disadvantage while environmental initiatives have gutted demand by compelling the shutdown of coal-fired power plants not worth retrofitting with scrubbers. Earlier this week Peabody Energy, the largest coal producer in the country, announced that it would seek bankruptcy protection. Only one company in the Dow Jones Coal Index, Consol Energy, has avoided that fate.

Writing in Slate Magazine, Daniel Gross poses an interesting question:

When companies file for bankruptcy, the fact that they can’t meet their obligations to creditors like banks or bondholders isn’t that much of an issue. They can absorb the loss and wind up with ownership of the company. But bankrupt coal firms will have a hard time meeting their obligations to the environment, to employees, and to retirees. Which means they will either need a bailout or they will suffer further obloquy when they walk away from commitments.

Coal mining in Central Appalachia is an immensely destructive business, especially strip mining and mountaintop removal, which quite literally moves mountains, alters drainage flows, and releases potentially toxic elements into the water. Federal regulations require coal companies to stabilize the land in order to reduce environmental hazards. When coal was booming a few years ago, that wasn’t a problem. With major coal companies going bankrupt, there are growing questions whether coal companies can fulfill their obligations.

Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources has $640 million in self-guaranteed liabilities in reclamation costs, reports the Washington Post. Will a western Virginia bankruptcy court judge honor the debts of creditors and suppliers or obligations to the public?

Meanwhile, coal industry pension funds, which have always been shaky, now are in deep doo-doo. The United Mine Workers of America’s 1974 pension plan was said last year to be $2 billion under-funded.  The plan asked for participating unionized companies to increase their contribution by 10% to $6.05 per union employee per hour worked, along with benefit cuts for future employees. But it is questionable how long bankrupt coal companies can sustain such payments. Who, if anyone, will make good promises made to retired coal miners?

Bacon’s bottom line. Coal is a dirty, unsafe fuel, and most of us won’t miss it. But the transition to a clean-energy economy will be messy. For Virginia’s coalfield region, the demise of the coal industry doesn’t mean just the loss of jobs, as debilitating as that will be. It could well mean environmental clean-ups never completed and pensions never paid.