Friday, August 4, 2017

A modern Civilian Conservation Corps could provide summer jobs

Back in the day, a summer job for a teen seemed like a rite of passage into adulthood. As recent as the early 1980s, more than 70 percent of high schoolers held summer jobs. Now, that number is closer to 40 percent.

The reasons are many but there are two significant ones that immediately come to mind. Rising minimum wages have forced service companies to put more work on fewer people or find ways to automate. Older workers idled by the Great Recession and the tepid economic growth that followed have taken jobs that teenagers held so they can have some income, as small as it may be.

So, there is a glaring lack of opportunity for youth.

It’s a disappointing situation for those teens who, individually, might have wanted to accrue some experience for their resumes while getting some cash to buy the latest gadgetry, get a car or save for college.

When looked at collectively, the economy suffers. Summer jobs were once the training ground for general acclimation into the workforce. They taught teens soft skills like urgency, showing up to work on time, and working well with others. Those same jobs introduced them to a variety of duties and responsibilities that could be expanded upon in the adult careers – inventory control, customer relations, and management to name a few.

How do we overcome this and ensure these kids get the experience they need to be productive adults?

One idea that you will probably be shocked to hear from this columnist that you’ve likely classified as conservative or libertarian over the years is something from the socialist’s arsenal: We could stand to use a modern version of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

As a reminder, the Civilian Conservation Corps was a critical component of FDR’s New Deal. During the Great Depression it put 3 million men to work in the nation's forests and parks, planting trees, building flood barriers, and maintaining trails. It gave them income at a time when it was hard to find and it improved the country’s natural assets. Locally, Letchworth State Park would not be what it is today without the efforts of the 3,000 men who toiled there as parts of the CCC.

A modern-day version -- run by municipalities or the states and not the federal government -- which would employ only teenagers as the general laborers at the minimum wage rate could answer the summer job shortage. The scope of the projects would not be as grand as that of the CCC; you couldn’t have teens run heavy equipment, use chainsaws, or take down trees.

But, look at any of the state parks to be found in this region or the state forests that dot our Southern Tier --- all of them are screaming for tender loving care. High schoolers could handle tasks like trail maintenance, erosion control, general clean-up and tree plantings. Doing so would give them critical job skills, get them sweaty with honest-to-goodness manual labor (God knows we need more exposure to that nowadays), and get them interested in and directly interacting with the environment (Americans talk a really good game about the environmentalism yet rarely get involved with it directly).   

You might ask: Wouldn’t this be a drain on the economy?

I don’t believe it would be.

Teens save very little for the long-term; they will spend everything they earn. Being part-time, seasonal jobs that last two months a year, we wouldn’t see taxpayer outlays on pensions, health insurance, and all the other pricey benefits.

More importantly, it’s workforce development. This gritty work would do as much if not more for getting kids ready for the Real World than what some of their simpler summer jobs used to do. If the state is willing to give corporations millions (billions?) to develop workers, why not invest it directly in the workforce in their formative years so employers/taxpayers will have to put less into their training as adults?

New York has a similar program in place that is off by a demographic. The Excelsior Conservation Corps was created by the Cuomo Administration in 2015 and it tackles projects with CCC gusto, but it employs only those between the ages of 18 and 25 and there are only 50 workers in the program. The ECC also employs workers for 10-month stints, rather than over the summer between semesters.

A modified CCC/ECC program could do wonders in fixing teenager unemployment (which is 13.1 percent, three times the general workforce), hiking trails and stream beds, and our workplace-preparedness issues.  

It’s time towns, counties and the state got their hands dirty -- or more accurately their teenagers’ hands dirty – and looked into the prospects of such an endeavor.  

From the 14 August 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Ban the box with education, not regulation

“Ban the box” is a movement spearheaded by civil rights groups that is aimed at persuading employers to remove from their applications the check box that asks if applicants have a criminal record.

In some municipalities, it is more than a suggestion – it’s regulation. Buffalo, Rochester, and New York City, for example, all have laws on the books prohibiting that line of questioning.

Some unsuspecting firms that have multiple locations across the country have run afoul of these laws. For them, it’s a difficult law for human resources offices to manage with only 150 cities and counties having such laws in place. There’s inconsistency in its mandated use and if corporate HR is not up on local laws, there are problems to be had.  

Case in point: In 2016, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman penalized two retailers mightily for breaking the city of Buffalo’s two-year-old bam. Big Lots paid a $100,000 fine while Marshall’s was on the hook for $95,000.

It’s rather unfortunate that these laws are in place. Interviewing and/or hiring individuals with criminal backgrounds should be at the sole discretion of the employer.

Many businesses want to minimize risk and eliminate wasteful hiring practices. You certainly can’t fault retailers for not wanting a repeat thief managing their inventories or operating their cash registers. And why make social service organizations and non-profits not be able to initially set aside unqualified candidates who put their clients at risk (such as job applicants who might be registered sex offenders or those who have been arrested for DWI) before delving into the initial interviews and subsequent criminal background checks?

On the other hand, there are employers who don’t use the box. I’ve written here before about the value in hiring those with criminal records and specifically former convicts. When they are given that chance to work, they succeed. Ex-cons have been some of my best coworkers. The determination they possess to become new men, to stay clean and better themselves (and their families) furnishes an incredible work ethic. At one point just a few years ago, over a quarter of my workplace had criminal records and about a third of that group had considerable time in prison under their belt.  

While I see the value in society’s investment in ex-cons (the US prison system costs taxpayers $228 billion per year) and cherish the redemption and reformation of men when given steady, gainful employment (and hope), I also see that their employment could pose a risk in certain workplaces because not everyone reforms. Within five years of release, about three-quarters of released prisoners are rearrested (I would argue, though, that it may be attributed to the stigma employers have placed upon them -- here in New York, more than 60% of ex-cons remain unemployed 1 year after their release because of their records).

But to each their own when it comes to hiring. I don’t mind assuming the risk and can’t fault those who won’t.

That’s why I have enjoyed the approach Governor Cuomo’s office has taken with this issue. He could easily force legislation or institute executive decree that would mandate the banning of the box statewide. But, he hasn’t. Instead, he’s focused his team’s efforts on things like the community reentry council and ongoing employer outreach.

Last month, Cuomo and his team shared their message yet again, reminding employers of these endeavors while discussing the value of hiring ex-convicts in regard to business operations and public safety. He also officially launched the Work for Success Pledge and which aims to help pair job candidates who have criminal convictions with companies in need of labor.

That’s the best way to ban the box…with education, not regulation.

It’s simple: 1 in 3 American adults has a criminal record. Who are we to judge? And, at the same time, who are we to judge those who do judge?

Let employers make the decisions that best fit their corporate and personal cultures. They know their workplaces -- and themselves -- far better than any lawmaker ever could.  

From the 07 August 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A world without Boy Scouts

Last week’s appearance by President Trump at the Boy Scouts of America’s National Jamboree and his trademark non-scripted remarks caused Scouting’s boo-birds to come out in full strength on social media. You could find on Twitter and Facebook countless souls using his remarks to paint the Jamboree as a “Hitler Youth Rally.”

Never mind that Presidents have long been invited to speak at Jamborees and Trump is known to meander off message, no matter the audience or guidelines before him. The biggest naysayers chose to ignore that because they already had a vendetta against the organization, one that saw them over the past few years paint the BSA as being too traditional in their ways or not being inclusive enough.

It’s a topsy-turvy world when you see how many people would love Scouting to go the way of the dinosaur. I really can’t understand how some people could feel threatened by a youth organization that transforms boys into excellent husbands, fathers, citizens, and leaders. God knows this world needs more men to be better at those responsibilities.

The Scouting program is an excellent supplement to good parenting and good schooling and when either of those is lacking, Scouting fills the void and becomes something greater.

It gives boys the male guidance that might be missing from a broken home, it develops the confidence they need to overcome their perceived weaknesses and fears, and it shows them the paths of careers and service they may not have been exposed to in the home or classroom.

That’s a pretty spectacular impact.

What if the naysayers’ wishes came true?

What if there never was a Boy Scouts of America as we know it?

Here’s how our world might be different:    

There might not have been artificial hearts: Doctor William DeVries was instrumental in developing artificial hearts and it was with his skilled surgical hands that the new technology was first tested on animals and then put into a human. He paved the way for saved lives and longer lives. It just so happens DeVries is an Eagle Scout. Scouting gave him the drive needed to work through high school to help his mother and grandmother raise his sixteen siblings and then tackle some of the most rigorous medical theories in universities.  

Hank Aaron might not have broken Babe Ruth’s record: Hank Aaron’s assault on the most sacred of sports records – the all-time home run record – would never have happened were a weaker man (physically or mentally) in his baseball cleats. Aaron received thousands of racist, hateful letters as he approached Babe Ruth’s total, and many of them were death threats against him and his family. He weathered that incredible stress and disgusting hatred by rising above it thanks to the life lessons and confidence he gleaned from being a Boy Scout.

There might not have been an Indiana Jones, Jaws or ET: Some of the most iconic films of all time were developed by Steven Spielberg who was an Eagle Scout. He likely would have gone on to an entirely different career path without the BSA’s impact. In a 2010 interview with Scouting magazine he said: “When I went for a Photography merit badge, I made a little 8mm movie. And the Boy Scouts in my troop liked the movie, made a lot of noise, laughed, clapped, and all that. I got that great virus of ‘I’ve got to do this the rest of my life.’”

There might not be a Wal-Mart: Sam Walton founded the world’s largest and most impactful department store chain in 1962 after years in sales and retail. His loyalty to the customer, emphasis on thrift and value, focus on sound business practices and tireless work ethic allowed the business to grow dramatically and he became one of America’s great entrepreneurial stories of the twentieth century. Those life skills and business traits were ideologies honed in the Boy Scout program. Walton was a Life Scout – almost an Eagle.

There might not be a Microsoft: Another Life Scout, Bill Gates, become a multi-billionaire by founding Microsoft, a company that is part of our everyday lives, one that has made work and computation so easy. He then devoted his earnings and life to philanthropy through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which impacts millions of lives the world over. That attention to community service was developed in his Boy Scout career, as was his interest in computing. One of his former scout leaders liked to recount the tale of one event where all the boys focused on outdoor skills while Bill gave a presentation on computers which were only in their embryonic stage at that time.

Other scouts you might be familiar with are Eagles like Neil Armstrong, Gerald Ford, Ross Perot, Mike Rowe, and William Sessions.

That’s an impeccable list of men who accomplished much…men who changed the world because they were changed by Scouting.

It’s pretty tough to imagine where we would be without Boy Scouts.


From the 31 July 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers