Category Archives: Labor & workforce

A Surprising Source of Resilience in SW, Southside Virginia

start-upsBack on the subject of entrepreneurship and business start-ups in Virginia… The Virginia Performs website provides a useful overview of data that describes the climate for business growth in the state. With the caveat that the data is subject to reporting lags, hence a little of out date, the picture is a modestly favorable one. The Old Dominion excels in the percentage of technology firms and the percentage of fast-growth firms, and fares in line with national averages for patents per capita, venture capital, business start-ups and university spin-offs.

Perhaps the most surprising finding emerges from the regional breakdown of business start-ups per 10,000 population broken down by region, as seen in the chart above. After years of lagging statewide averages, Southside Virginia has come on strong in recent years, surpassing even Northern Virginia in 2012. Southwest Virginia has out-performed the state average in several recent years, although it dipped in 2012.

With the perception of “Virginiagal2,” who has been touting the entrepreneurial potential for areas outside Virginia’s urban crescent in the comments section of this blog, not many observers would have predicted this trend. Of course, one must be careful with the data. We don’t know, for instance, what proportion of these new businesses are comprised of home-based businesses and micro-businesses with limited growth prospects, and what number might have fast-growth potential. Regardless, the rate of business formation suggests a hidden resilience in the Southside and Southwest Virginia economies that may keep those regions economically afloat in the face of labor-market economies that favor the major metros.

– JAB

“The Economy of the Past Is Over.” But What Comes Next?

McAuliffeby James A. Bacon

So, Virginia faces a $2.4 billion projected budget shortfall, which Governor Terry McAuliffe blames largely on defense funding cuts mandated by sequestration. Surprise, surprise. We’ve seen this train wreck coming for years. Some (including multiple writers on this blog) have seen it more clearly and shouted about it more loudly than others. Now it’s here — the slowing economic growth, the stalled budget revenues and the general malaise. The question is, what do we do about it?

McAuliffe is making the right noises. As the Washington Post reports, the governor said the state needs to make a fundamental shift away from its reliance on federal spending. “It is obvious that the economy of the past — where we could simply take the economic benefits of the Department of Defense for granted — is over,” he said. “We need to move past this reliance — and build a new entrepreneurial, innovative and dynamic economy.”

Vague and platitudinous as the statement is, it has the virtue of being true. The hard part is figuring out how to move to that new entrepreneurial, innovative and dynamic economy. Part of the answer is not doing the same thing we’ve done before, only more of it.

McAuliffe can make a lasting mark on Virginia if he avoids that trap. But it will be difficult. When he solicits advice, whether in private conversations or through public mechanisms like study commissions, he’ll hear from the established special interests — not from startup entrepreneurs who are too busy building their businesses to participate in the public policy process. He’ll hear from the economic development lobby that we need to spend more money on corporate recruitment. He’ll hear from the convention & visitors lobby that we need to spend more money promoting tourism. He’ll hear from the agriculture lobby that we’ll need to spend more money on overseas trade missions. He’ll hear from incubators that we need to spend more money on incubators. He’ll hear from the public universities we need to spend more money on university R&D. He’ll hear from the chambers of commerce that government, not business, needs to spend more money on workforce development to give Virginians the skills they need in the marketplace.  McAuliffe will touch bases with all the stakeholders and he’ll hear the same thing they’ve been telling state government for decades: Give us more money!

In the early 2000s, back when I started Bacon’s Rebellion,  Governor Mark Warner initiated the state’s first economic development strategic plan. Before running for governor, Warner, a successful technology entrepreneur and venture capitalist, had traveled the state meeting with local business communities and setting up local venture funds. From first-hand experience, he understood the nexus between technology and entrepreneurial innovation. He appointed a highly capable attorney, Michael Schewel, as commerce secretary to oversee the study.

Schewel sought out new thinking, including the work, which was novel at the time, of economic geographer Richard Florida’s on the central role of the creative class. The final product of the study group included some interesting small-bore initiatives, strengthened business-university ties and represented genuine progress over previous thinking. But it conceptualized economic development along the lines of Virginia’s existing administrative organization and reflected the established institutional thinking of the “stakeholders.” Nothing really changed. If Warner and Schewel couldn’t push Virginia economic development into a fundamentally new direction, I fear, no one can. At least they tried. No one since then has made an effort to buck the conventional wisdom.

The most important thing we can do, as I blogged yesterday, is to think how to stimulate new business formation — especially of companies with high growth potential. We need more companies like Washington, D.C.-based SmartThings, an Internet-of-Things start-up which earlier this month sold out to Samsung for $200 million. SmartThings got its start literally two or three years ago with a Kickstarter fund raiser and $15 million in venture funding. That’s the kind of wealth creation we should be looking for.

One strategy would be to cull unnecessary regulation. Contrary to the views of some who frequent this blog, the state regulates many aspects of the economy to the detriment of innovation. Uber, Lyft and the taxicab sector is but one example of many that could be mentioned. Given time, I will detail others. But that is only a partial and incomplete solution. Perhaps more fundamentally, we need to build the kinds of communities where members of the creative class want to live. We need to recognize that economic development equals community development (smart growth). We also can work harder to help government do better those things that only government can do (smart cities).

The traditional pillars of economic development — industrial recruitment, tourism, agriculture — all have valuable contributions to make. But they are not sufficient by themselves to drive the economy forward. It is time for a stem-to-stern rethinking of how to move Virginia to the next level. If the budget crisis prompts that re-evaluation, it may prove more a blessing than a curse.

How Not to Shift From Coal

coal-plantBy Peter Galuszka

Coal is rightly the scourge of environmentalists. Economic pressure is on to shift to cleaner natural gas made plentiful by controversial hydraulic fracking. Political pressure is on to replace fossil fuels with renewables such as wind, solar and other methods.

In Virginia, Dominion, the state’s largest utility, relies for 46 percent of its generating capacity on coal and is moving in fits and starts to natural gas. It doesn’t get much from renewables. How much and how fast should it shift?

Yet out of Colorado comes a cautionary tale. According to The Washington Post, a family in the impoverished city of Pueblo is at odds running power. They only use a window air conditioner part of the time. They avoid using their oven in the summer. It uses electricity they not longer can afford because it overheats the house in summer.

For the family of Sharon Garcia, the problem is Black Hills Energy, which recently bought the local power company – Aquila, which got some of its power from a coal plant that was first built in 1897 with peaking extra power from Xcel, another utility.

Then, in 2008, Black Hills bought out Aquila and everything changed. Xcel decided it could make more money selling power at retail rates in Denver and not at wholesale rates to the utility serving Pueblo. In the midst of these events, a state law prompted Black Hills to shut down older coal plants for cleaner natural gas.

The state approved rate increases so Black Hills could build new infrastructure to handle natural gas and and rates when up significantly.

The problem is likely to be further complicated if the utilities move on the renewables, which, in the short term, are more expensive than either coal or gas.

This is not to say that companies should stick with coal forever, or natural gas. Renewables should still be the goal. But during the transition, green activists, many of them affluent, need to realize who pays the price. What’s a few dozen extra dollars for some is a tragedy for others.

Chart of the Day: Virginia’s Aging Population

aging

This graph comparing Virginia’s age between 1980 and 2013 comes from Luke Juday’s latest post over on the Stat Chat blog, published by the demographics shop the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. I urge you to check out the opening chart in his post to see an animation of the changes year by year. It’s fascinating to watch the bulging Baby Boomer generation crawling up the age ladder.

I would love to see a projection of Virginia’s demographic profile over the next 20 years. We would see the big Boomer blob move up, out of the workforce and into retirement age. The implications of that massive shift cannot be over-estimated. Virginia’s working-age population won’t be increasing in size — indeed, it probably will begin shrinking within a decade. Extrapolate that trend nationally, and you’ll understand why the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) maintains that the structural U.S. budget deficit — “only” $583 billion this year, according to the Obama administration’s updated forecast, will march relentlessly higher within a few years as the growing ranks of seniors put increasing stress on the Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security programs.

America still faces a Boomergeddon scenario, although we may have bought ourselves a few years’ grace. The CBO thinks that the slowdown in the growth rate of medical spending experienced since the 2007-2008 recession is a lasting phenomenon and will slightly bend the spending curve downward — enough to keep the Medicare Part A trust fund solvent through 2030. In February, the non-partisan budget shop had projected that the trust fund would run out of money in 2025, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The good news is that Congress has five more years to dither and procrastinate about reforming Medicare. The bad news is that Congress probably will take full advantage of that five years before making hard choices.

– JAB

RAM, Coal and Massive Hypocrisy

The Pikesville RAM clinic in 2011. Photo by Scott Elmquist

The Pikesville RAM clinic in 2011. Photo by Scott Elmquist

By Peter Galuszka

Sure it’s a photo op but more power to him.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe is freshly arrived from the cocktail and canape circuit in Europe on a trade mission and is quickly heading out to the rugged and impoverished coal country of Wise County.

There, he, Attorney General Mark Herring and Health and Human Resources Secretary William A. Hazel will participate in a free clinic to help the mountain poor get free health care. The political opportunity is simple: Many of the 1,000 or more who will be attending the Remote Area Medical clinic are exactly the kind of people getting screwed over by the General Assembly’s failure to expand Medicaid to 400,000 low income Virginians.

RAM makes its Wise run every summer and people line up often in the wee morning hours to get a free medical and dental checkup. For many, it’s the only health care they get all year unless it’s an emergency. Another problem: Distances are great in the remote mountains and hospitals can be an hour away.

Mind you, this is Coal Country, the supposedly rich area upon which Barack Obama is waging war and harming local people by not going along with coal executives’ demands on environmental disasters such as mountaintop removal, keeping deep mine safety standards light and avoiding carbon dioxide rules.

The big question, of course,  is why if the land is so rich in fossil fuel, are the people so poor and in need of free medical care? It’s been this way for 150 years. And now, coal’s demise got underway in Southwest Virginia in 1991 when employment peaked at about 11,000. It is now at 4,000 or less. It’s getting worse, not better.

In June 2011, by coincidence, I happened along a RAM free clinic in Pikesville, Ky., not that far from Wise when I was researching my book, “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.” My photographer Scott Elmquist and I spotted the clinic at a high school. There must have been hundreds of people there –  some of whom told me they had been waiting since 1:30 a.m. It was about 8:30 a.m.

Attending them were 120 medical and dental personnel from the U.S. Public Health Service. They were dressed in U.S. Navy black, grey and blue colored fatigues. The University of Louisville had sent in about 80 dental chairs.

Poverty in Pike County had been running about 27 percent, despite the much-touted riches of coal. Pike is Kentucky’s biggest coal producer.

One man I spoke with said he had a job as a security guard, but he doesn’t qualify for regular Medicaid and can’t afford a commercial plan. In other words, had I interviewed him more recently and had he been a Virginian, he would have been lost through the cracks of Medicaid expansion. Alas, he’s in luck. In 2013, Kentucky opted for a “marketplace” expansion system where federal funds would be used to help lower income buy health plans through private carriers.

Lucky the man isn’t from here. The marketplace plan is exactly the kind that McAuliffe has proposed and exactly the one that stubborn Republicans such as Bill Howell in the General Assembly are throttling. The feds would pick up the bill for expanding Medicaid to 400,000 needy Virginians, at least initially.

Yet another irony. Expanded medical benefits are available just across an invisible border in two states whose coalfield residents somehow never got the great benefits of King Coal.

More Defense Cuts Plague Virginia

Special deliveryBy Peter Galuszka

Virginia continues to see painful military spending cuts in the aftermath of the years’- long U.S. intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among the latest news is that the Army may cut 3,600 jobs at Ft. Lee, ironically the site of a recent and large expansion, by 2020. That could result in a decline of 9,000 residents near Petersburg which is close to  the base.

Plus, the Air Force plans on cutting 742 positions at its Air Combat Command headquarters at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton although some of the positions are already vacant and won’t be filled.

These are just some of the changes that are affecting Virginia, which is the No. 2 defense industry state after California. Many of the cuts involve active duty personnel whose vacancies are not being filled or are being asked to take early retirement.

Defense industry jobs are likewise taking cuts. A report by the National Association of Manufacturers states that in 2014, California will lose the most military-related jobs (148,400) followed by Virginia (114,900) and then Texas (109,000). Maryland will lose 40,200 jobs, the report says.

Many of the jobs are in heavy manufacturing, such as aerospace and ship building, and search and navigational services, but general business and other services will also be affected.

The news is especially hard on Petersburg and nearby Ft. Lee which just a few years ago enjoyed a major boost after a Base and Realignment and Closure round consolidated many multi-service logistics and supply functions. The influx of thousands of soldiers, contractors and their families boosted the city and surrounding areas.

Hampton, the location of Langley Air Force Base, doesn’t seem to be in store for such heavy impacts since the cuts involve some jobs already being lost to attrition. Other bases and areas hurt by the Air Force cuts include Washington, D.C.; San Antonio; Texas; Dayton, Ohio; and Belleville, Illinois.

Newport News Shipbuilding, now owned by Huntington Ingalls Industries, could lose a deal to build one submarine and might delay another to build as Ford class nuclear attack carrier, if automatic defense budget cuts return in 2016. Another potential hit: refueling the nuclear-powered carrier George Washington but may mothball the ship if the budget cuts kick in. About 24,000 people work at Newport News Shipbuilding, making it the largest private employer in the state.

Besides the Washington area, Hampton Roads is greatly dependent upon defense spending. Some 47 percent of the regional economy depends on it. Anticipating more defense cuts, former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell formed a commission to come up with ideas before he left office this year. One of them is to be pro-active and recommend cuts of its liking before the federal government acts.

One of its recommendations cuts both ways on environmental issues. It recommends against offshore oil and gas drilling in watery areas where the military trains, thus making them available over the long term. It likewise recommends against wind turbines in the same areas.

These are interesting, but very difficult choices.

Expect No Help from the Ivory Tower

ivory_towerby James A. Bacon

In yesterday’s post, I expressed skepticism that Virginia’s system of education and job training (like that of the nation as a whole) is equipped to provide Virginia’s workforce with the skills required for employment today. Skills, I conjectured, are obsolescing faster than educators and job trainers can keep up. One reason for that, I suggested, is that funding streams are dominated either by fractured and overlapping government-funded job training programs, which by their nature are unresponsive to the marketplace, or by colleges and universities with their own institutional imperatives.

What did I mean by “institutional imperatives”? An article in Charlottesville’s Daily Progress yesterday sheds some light in a discussion of two of Virginia’s elite educational institutions, the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary.

As described by reporter Derek Quizon, the great challenge of UVa and W&M is balancing increasing costs, decreased state funding and a push to retain top faculty. Those are essentially the same priorities, I might add, of every university, public or private, although less renowned institutions may lack the resources to recruit star faculty.

Judging from the reporting in Quizon’s article, cutting costs does not appear to be a major preoccupation of either UVa or W&M. The focus is how to increase tuition revenue while meeting the goal of making college affordable to everyone, including lower-income students. The solution: Jack up tuition, siphon a fraction of the revenue into student aid, and squeeze harder those students whose families can afford to pay.

In institutions whose bottom line is prestige, not profits, no one is talking about dialing back the recruitment of star faculty. No one is talking about rolling back administrative overhead. No one is talking about disrupting the educational marketplace through online learning. Strategic plans are forged in response to the demands of internal constituencies, not to the demands of the labor market.

What’s true of major universities is not necessarily true of all colleges within those universities — engineering and business schools, I suspect, stay in close touch with businesses that hire their grads — and probably not true at all of community colleges, which remain focused on equipping their students with specific skills needed in the workplace.

But for the most part colleges and universities seem to be floating in a bubble high above the grubby concerns of the business world that that pays the taxes and creates the wealth in our society. If we’re looking for structural change in how citizens acquire the skills that make them employable, don’t look for that change to be led by our elite educational institutions. The change we need will have to come from somewhere else.

– JAB

Virginia’s Jobs-Skills Mismatch

skills_mismatchEvidence is mounting that a reason for slow economic growth and high unemployment — not the main reason but a significant one — is the mismatch between the skills required for the jobs that American companies have to fill and the skills that American workers actually possess.

A recent survey of 87 small and midsize business CEOs conducted by the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond and the Richmond Council of CEOs found the following: 70% staffing was a significant issue, particularly the finding, recruiting and training of operational and sales talent.

When asked how much their annual revenues might increase if their talent concerns were resolved, more than half of all CEOs (51.7%) indicated they would experience growth of 11% or more, with 17.2% of firms indicating potential revenue growth of more than 20% if they could solve their staffing issues.

The problem is concentrated in two main areas: sales and IT. “The CEOs I work with are very concerned with attracting talent in two areas,” says Scot McRoberts, executive director of the Virginia Council of CEOs. “Many small business CEOs are raising the bar for their sales teams. … In our local IT community, programmers and coders are just not there in sufficient skill and quantity.”

Let’s see…. Businesses want employees with different skill sets. Employees want skills that will get them hired. Virginia has a massive educational/job training establishment — colleges, universities, community colleges, job training programs — that spends billions of dollars a year. Yet, somehow, the system is not functioning properly. Old skills are obsolescing faster than ever as businesses strive to incorporate new technologies, and the education/training system can’t keep up.

Bacon’s bottom line: If those 87 CEOs are representative, thousands of jobs in Central Virginia alone are going begging. Instead of trying to create jobs by building baseball stadiums and sports arenas, perhaps our political and civic leaders should focus on the jobs-skills mismatch. On the other hand, maybe they shouldn’t. Given their track record, maybe they should just stay out of the way.

Regardless, we need a new system to equip Virginians with the skills they need to be employable and that businesses need to be competitive — a system that can keep up with fast-evolving technology. Will we get that system? Don’t count on it. The existing system is ossified in place by funding streams determined more by politics and institutional privilege than by market demand.

– JAB

Why High Schools Should Prioritize Proficiency in Writing and Algebra II

enrollment_persistence

Image credit: VLDS

Virginia high school students who earned the more academically demanding Advanced Studies diploma were six times more likely to have earned an Associate’s or Bachelor’s Degree within four years of graduating. That’s one of the most recent findings to emerge from the Virginia Longitudinal Data System (VLDS), a system that matches de-identified data from multiple state data sources, allowing researchers to track the progression of Virginians from school to college and into the workforce.

A study of “postsecondary persistence,” the likelihood of a student persisting through college long enough to earn a degree, also found that students who scored “advanced proficient” on their Algebra II Standards of Learning and end-of-course writing SOLs were far more likely than their peers to enroll and graduate from college within four years.

Why does this matter? Because experts estimate that by 2018 65% of all jobs will require some level of post-secondary education or training. “It is critical that Virginia’s high schools ensure that students graduate with the knowledge and skills needed for success in post secondary programs,” write the authors Deborah L. Jonas and Marshall W. Garland in “Virginia’s 2008 On-Time Graduation Rate Cohort Four year college enrollment, persistence and completion.

“This research provides important insights into the value of the Advanced Studies diploma — and the courses within the diploma – in preparing students for success in life.” In particular, it documents the importance of ensuring students reach high achievement in mathematics and English courses.

That may not sound like the most dramatic finding in the world, but it does lead to important public policy conclusions. (The authors did not draw these conclusions — I am drawing them.). Not only should high schools encourage students to strive for Advanced Studies diplomas, they should focus resources (e.g. the best teachers) on English and algebra courses. Students need writing and math skills to make it through college. All other courses — history, foreign languages, physical education, various elective studies — are worthwhile but less essential.

In the future, we should be seeing more research like this based upon VLDS data. Hopefully, Virginia’s government and political leaders will use the research to guide public policy. I don’t under-estimate the power of ideology and bureaucratic inertia to trump research when it comes to reforming the system, but hope springs eternal.

– JAB

McAuliffe Hits Private IT Outsourcing

mcauliffeBy Peter Galuszka

Just a decade ago, privatizing and out-sourcing traditionally government work was all the rage.

Virginia’s Democrats and Republicans alike saw a philosophical advantage in fending off Information Technology, road maintenance and other work to for-profit, private companies who supposedly – if you believed the hype then  –could always do things better, faster and more efficiently than state workers.

The concept of “government” workers always seemed to be negative. Not only would taxpayers have to pay their health and retirement benefits, they might try to join unions and make labor negotiations even more difficult. It didn’t wash with Virginia’s conceit of being an anti-labor, “right-to-work” state that promised to keep workers docile as the state tried to recruit outside firms.

Now, Gov. Terry McAuliffe is turning this concept on its head. He is ordering a review of state contracts, especially on out-sourced IT service work that he says may be inefficient and expensive. “I am concerned that state government is inappropriately dependent on expensive contract labor when traditionally appointed state employees can perform at a higher level at a lower cost.”

Now that’s a major turn-around, even for a Democrat. After all, it was fellow Democrat and former Gov. and now U.S. Senator Mark Warner, currently running for re-election, that worked the get the state to accept a $2.3 billion contract for defense contractor Northrop Grumman to take over and upgrade the state’s antiquated IT system in 2005.

That deal proved disastrous as the contractor’s performance issues brought on bouts of oversight and renegotiation. The state ended up extending its contract with Northrop Grumman by three years.

An underlying problem is that while the contract lasts until 2019, the state must make some decisions if it wants to continue with the outsourcing route or start relying on its own state workers.

Another problem is whether the state identifies independent contractors as such or employees of state organizations. About 1 percent of the state’s workers were misidentified as independents. Apparently, state workers have their Social Security and taxes withheld from paychecks. But are they really independents? Or is it just window dressing to play homage to some fad thought up by fiscal conservatives?

McAuliffe is right to start thinking in these terms. What he’s going to have to face, however, is the conventional wisdom in Virginia that “public” is always bad and “private, for-profit” is always good. For evidence of this hidebound view, just read this blog regularly.