Category Archives: Labor & workforce

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.

What Charlottsville Needs Is… More Charlottesville

Boyd Tinsley, violinist and founding member of the Dave Matthews Band, will give a free concert.

Boyd Tinsley, violinist and founding member of the Dave Matthews Band, will give a free concert.

There is nothing else in Virginia like Charlottesville’s Tom Tom Founders Festival, which launched a week-long series of events yesterday. Food trucks, craft beer, music concerts, an art bus, murals, films in the park, street dancing, a capella performances, craft cocktail competitions, a chili showdown, crowdfunding pitch night, and celebrations of arts, innovation and entrepreneurship — it’s all packed into one week.

The festival, now in its fifth year, “converges hundreds of bands, start-ups, artists, and visionaries with the purpose of celebrating creative founding,” says the Tom Tom website. “It’s a real opportunity to launch ventures amidst ideas and parties in one of America’s most beautiful and historic small cities.”

Charting a future as an arts-infused, tech-savvy economy was the theme of the Founder’s Forum opening event. “Speakers highlighted the importance of creativity as a means to boost Charlottesville’s attractiveness to businesses through education and culture,” reports Charlottesville Today.

“We will not succeed, I think, by trying to become Boulder or Raleigh,” said Mayor Mike Signer. “We will succeed by … becoming more Charlottesville.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The festival sounds like so much fun I wish I could be there. I’m envious — I want one in Richmond! Any region that can tap into the energy at the intersection of the arts, technology and entrepreneurship will thrive in today’s economy.

When I graduated from the University of Virginia in 1975, my experience at the university was so positive that I wanted nothing more than to move back to Charlottesville. At the age of 30 I managed to do so, taking a job in corporate communications for AMVEST Corporation in an idyllic location five minutes from UVa in the Boar’s Head Inn complex. But I discovered to my dismay that unless a newcomer was connected to UVa or had the bucks to join the Farmington Country Club, Charlottesville was no city for young professionals. It wasn’t long before I moved to Richmond, which I found much more to my liking. But times have changed in the past 30 years. Charlottesville looks like the kind of city where young professionals can sink roots and prosper. I foresee a great future for the region.

— JAB

Has Virginia’s Economy Turned the Corner?

employment_growthGood news on the Virginia employment front. After two years of sequestration-related stagnation, employment in Virginia grew faster than the national rate year-to-year through February 2016 — 2.5% compared to 1.9% — according to figures released by the Virginia Employment Commission. Growth was strongest in the Winchester and Richmond MSAs but it was solid where it counts the most, Northern Virginia, the state’s largest metro. Hampton Roads and Lynchburg continue to lag the state and national economies.

As a resident of the Richmond region, I am particularly heartened by the Richmond numbers. Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads had an excuse for their lagging performance in recent years — their military-dependent economies were hammered by sequestration-related budget cuts. Richmond had no such excuse; federal spending is modest here. As memory serves, this past year is the first in the current business cycle that Richmond has significantly outperformed the national economy.

Not only do the overall employment numbers look good, the strongest growth in the Richmond region took place in the professional and business services sector, a highly compensated occupational category. Growth was up 9.6% of the period, the Richmond Times-Dispatch quotes economist Chris Chmura as saying. State government employment, down 0.4%, was not a factor.

Since getting hammered during the recession, Richmond has been reinventing itself. Dramatic change has taken place not reflected by the overall employment numbers. The economy is less dependent today upon a handful of large employers like Infineon, Circuit City and LandAmerica, all of which disappeared in the recession. A new generation of entrepreneurs is rising to the fore. The region is more vibrant than it has ever been in the 30 years I have lived here.

Mark Warner’s Centrist Democratic Solutions for What Ails Us

Sen. Mark R. Warner. Photo credit: Virginia Business

The Thinker: Sen. Mark R. Warner. Photo credit: Virginia Business

by James A. Bacon

As governor of Virginia between 2002 and 2006, Sen. Mark R. Warner thought deeply and seriously about economic development in an era of globalization and knowledge-intensive industry. Although he is far less visible to Virginians since his election to the U.S. Senate in 2008, he continues ask what it takes for the United States — and Virginia — to adapt and thrive in a competitive global economy. In a lengthy spread in Virginia Business magazine, he expounds upon his thinking about what he calls Capitalism 2.0.

A primary focus is the changing nature of work, and the rise of the “gig” economy, in which people increasingly work on demand, as epitomized by drivers for the ride-hailing company Uber. The super-flexible work model suits the needs of many employers and employees but it creates challenges because current laws and regulations governing the labor market don’t fit the new jobs very well.

“What is the social contract going to be in the 21st century?” he asks.

Our current system basically says there are two classifications of work: You’re an independent contractor, or you’re an employee, and there are certain freedoms or responsibilities that come with each of those classifications. I think there probably is going to need to be either a third or fourth-level classification, and there may be a whole ability to create a set of benefits that will be more portable with you.

As one of those who fall into a nontraditional classification, I couldn’t agree more. Warner is asking important questions, and it’s encouraging to know that someone in Congress is thinking about them.

As a political centrist, Warner does not gravitate toward populist, Bernie Sanders-like solutions (free college for all, to be paid for with taxes on millionaires and billionaires). He worries about the $19 trillion national debt and the budget deficit that is growing again — “we are sitting on a ticking bomb” — and he embraces centrist solutions that entails both tax reform that yields higher revenues and entitlement reform that cuts long-term spending.

Warner also is clear-eyed enough to recognize that some of the legislation he supported like the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Act still need work. Obamacare, he says, creates a “huge cliff” between part-time work at 29 hours and full-time work at 30 hours, at which point companies must provide health insurance. The result: Companies don’t want to “tip the scales” to full-time hours, thus dampening the creation of full-time jobs. Likewise, the Dodd-Frank Act imposes tremendous regulatory costs on community banks even though they do not contribute to the systemic financial problems that Congress wanted to guard against. The result: fewer community banks.

But Warner remains a Democrat, and he looks to government to solve society’s ills. A classic case is his take on the burgeoning student loan crisis. Like everyone else, he views the increasing debt load of college students — averaging $26,000 per student in Virginia among those who borrow to pay their college bills — as a drag on the economy and a hardship on the students themselves. What solutions does he propose? Use the power of government to make it easier to borrow money!

Thus, Warner introduced one bill that would allow companies to offer as an employee benefit the ability to pay down student debt with pretax dollars. In other words, share the burden of debt repayment with the taxpayer! Alas, history has shown that making it easier for students to borrow just allows colleges and universities to raise tuition, fees and expenses more aggressively than before. (To be fair: Warner had Republican partners backing the bill, which indicates that Democrats are not the only ones who instinctively turn to government solutions.)

Another bill would streamline the process for students to enroll in income-based repayment programs for federal loans. Warner also believes that federal Pell grants for low-income students should be offered to high school students taking dual-enrollment classes. More free stuff. Call it Bernie Sanders Lite!

The underlying problem in higher education is out-of-control costs, as Warner is well aware:

[When I went to school the] cost of a year of higher education was about the cost of a starter car, a basic Ford, both about $5,000. Now cars are maybe $15,000. You go to a private school today, it’s $50,000. This has kind of gotten out of whack.

Warner has proposed creating more user-friendly websites that would allow would-be college students to compare costs, the average length of time it takes to graduate, how much graduates earn, and the like. Putting more information in the hands of consumers is always a good idea, but the reason that costs are out of control is not insufficient consumer information — there is plenty data available on the Internet — but the availability of easy, subsidized credit.

The Senator also takes it as an article of faith that the U.S. should be investing more in human capital. “In capitalism today,” he says, “if you invest in a piece of equipment, it’s an asset. If you invest in a human being in terms of pay or training, that’s a cost. Is there a way to rebalance that a little bit?

What he doesn’t do (at least not in this interview) is justify the sentiment that the U.S. needs to be investing more in human capital, as opposed to, say, making better use of the massive sums we already invest, often ineffectually, in K-12 education, higher ed, and job training. As with health care, I would argue, the U.S. invests more and gets less for our human-capital “investments” than most other economically advanced nations. Among the most disastrous conceits is that everyone who wants to go to college should be enabled to do so, regardless of how well or how ill prepared they are, and regardless of how many middle-class jobs might go begging because people are unwilling or unable to get the necessary technical training.

While I disagree with Warner on these important points, I applaud him for a thoughtful take on topics in a nation that seems determinedly un-serious about public policy. At least Warner asks good questions, seems open to empirical evidence on what works and what doesn’t, and refrains from demonizing those who disagree with him. In an increasingly polarized country, he looks for win-win approaches to problems. And that’s saying something.