Monday, March 18, 2019

Open doors, open minds: Investing in our future

You might have seen me on WKBW’s newscast last week. The station was at Confer Plastics to do a story about seventh graders from West Buffalo Charter School who came to the plant to film footage of our processes and interviews of our people as a part of a contest called “What’s So Cool About Manufacturing?” which pits middle schools against one another in producing a flashy video about local factories.

The contest is a wonderful thing. It gives young men and women the chance to intimately explore a workplace on the plant floor and behind the scenes, giving them an understanding of what drives our economy and what is there for them in the future, showing them a clearer path to personal and professional success and fostering ideas about educational paths to pursue, be it college or trade school.

Kids need more of those experiences.

So do employers.   

Here is my challenge to the latter: Business owners and managers who routinely complain about the deficient workforce and the lack of available personnel need to do something other than whine. Get involved.

There is no doubt a crisis in the job market. Well-paying full-time jobs with good benefits are go unfilled with managers of blue-collar companies (factories, farms, trucking firms, the building trades) having a difficult time finding skilled workers or even apprentices interested in that line of work.

It’s an outcome of a few decades of misplaced priorities in society and education. Adults, whether in the home or in the classroom, had purposely driven kids away from the trades, thinking that such careers are demeaning and low-paying, on the path to extinction, and that college is the unquestioned key to success.

None of those beliefs are true nor have they ever been. Now, the adults who once believed them are waking up to that, especially since recent college grads find themselves crushed by debt and unable to find a good job due to an overabundance of college degrees, alleged over-qualification, and a lack of opportunity.

Teachers, counselors, policymakers and parents have done a 180 over the past half-decade or so, changing the culture that their predecessors had put into play for far too long. They are seeing the value in all work and all trades and doing what they can to promote them among today’s students.

But, after decades of society going in the other direction, it’s a tough sell and a slow one.

That’s where employers can help out.

They need to do as they do in their workplaces – get their hands dirty, get involved. They need to reach out to the schools and put themselves out there. Guidance from real world people can go a long ways in getting students interested in skilled work and settled on a career that will keep them comfortable for life.

It’s an easy and effective pursuit, one that we’ve practiced for some time at the plant and I strongly encourage other employers to follow suit. There are two simple ways that you can do this: host tours and let kids shadow.

Experiential learning is the best way to garner interest and that’s why tours are so effective. The kids can see people working, machines functioning, and goods being produced. The awesomeness of what you do every day can be an attention-grabber. It doesn’t matter if you manufacture kayaks, milk cows, or build houses – kids will eat it up. I’ve had students from fifth grade through college students go through the factory, all of them with wide eyes and keen interest.

Shadowing takes tours to another level and to make it happen it generally requires a full day and your willingness to share a lot of your time and knowledge -- and that of your coworkers – with students. We’ve done this quite a few times with students from schools like Barker and the former Niagara Catholic and with an Explorer Post we hosted on-site. They were able to choose from various career paths and observe what our folks do while hearing of the finer details of why they do it from various mentors.       

While most employers won’t directly benefit from such activities -- the chances of you recruiting someone for your company is slim (and it should not be your goal) – those kids with whom you speak will. It will give them interest, purpose, and direction.

If you are serious about the quality of our workforce, the future of our kids, and the health of our economy, partner with our local schools and open your doors and open your hearts -- doing so will open the students’ minds. Your investment of time is in an investment in the future.

From the 18 March 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, March 8, 2019

Proposed overtime rules will hurt New York’s farm economy

There’s a bill up for discussion in Albany that would bring dramatic changes to New York agriculture. S2837/A2750 is a multi-faceted proposal that would change how farm labor is managed, from allowing collective bargaining to mandating a day of rest.

The most troubling aspect of the bill is the introduction of overtime pay to the state’s ag economy.

When the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938 it mandated overtime for work over 40 hours. Farm workers were excluded from this benefit because lawmakers wanted to ensure higher labor costs did not drive up the cost of produce, meats, and dairy so consumers could afford those life-sustaining necessities.

No states have made exceptions to that rule except for California where Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill in 2016 that entitles farm workers to the same overtime standards afforded other workers. The impact of that legislation has not yet been felt as it is being phased-in over a 4-year period beginning this year. It will be in full effect for the majority of California farms by 2022, and 2025 for enterprises with 25 or fewer employees.  

If New York State were to join California as the only states to set such rules it would be a long time before they would be joined by others, if ever: Other agriculturally-focused states aren’t entertaining the idea at all. The only thing that could bring about wholesale change would be an amendment to the aforementioned FLSA in the federal government and that’s not happening anytime soon.  

So, until something does change the realm in which those increased labor costs exist – costs mandated by the state and not market factors – New York farms will be at a disadvantage against farms from other states and other countries with lower input costs. That imbalance would especially manifest itself in labor-intensive goods that can’t be prepared and harvested by a machine such as apples, peaches, cherries, and milk.  

In order to properly compete across state borders New York farms would find it difficult if not impossible to pass the newfound costs onto food processors and consumers. New York growers and ranchers would have to eat those costs.

In consort with New York’s dramatically-rising minimum wage rates – which, as a domino effect, still impact farmers even though they pay well above the minimum – the loss of profits will have a detrimental effect on their bottom line. Estimates revealed by Farm Credit East and the New York Farm Bureau show that in frightening ways: Looking at a five-year average of financial results it has been determined that the bill would increase ag labor costs across the state by $300 million, a 17 percent leap.

What does that mean to individual farming sectors, specifically those mentioned earlier? Greenhouse and nursery operations will see their profits drop by 58 percent. Fruit growers will see theirs decline by 74 percent. Dairy farms will see all of their profits wiped out.

This could not come at a worse time. This columnist has written before of the dire straits faced by New York dairy farmers as a result of changing global demands and evolving import/export laws – over the past 5 years the Empire State has lost a fifth of its dairy farms and debt-buried farm owners have been taking their lives, or have contemplated doing so, at a rate that’s achieved crisis level. And, then, there are the vegetable and grain growers who have taken an absolute beating and are worried about the future due to international trade impasses created by the Trump Administration.

As a non-farmer you’ll feel the pain, too.

For the most part, the upstate agriculture economy doesn’t exist in a bubble as farmers are competing with others from around the world but smaller bubbles do exist at the local level where you, as the consumer, are into buying local from markets, co-ops, community supported agriculture (CSAs), and roadside stands. There, unlike with interstate and international trade, the costs have to get passed on to you. Will you enjoy shelling out a half to two-thirds more for the summer and autumnal bounties you so much enjoy?

And what of your neighbors? We often hear that the poor and those on fixed incomes cannot afford farm fresh foods -- this will only serve to drive them further from the marketplace.

Of course, this is a bill introduced by legislators from metropolitan New York City (Senator Jessica Ramos and Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan) who are totally disconnected from where their food comes from and how it is grown and raised. If they chose to actually understand and experience the farm economy they would know farm workers get paid a decent dollar, are granted extra cash for the quantity picked, and are provided housing and transportation. Those are great, and costly, investments in the workforce – let’s not drive them up higher.

This bill will be disastrous if it passes. It will only make worse an already-ravaged upstate economy by harming farmers, your community, and your pocketbook. 

From the 11 March 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The red-bellied woodpecker

If you have a suet feeder in your backyard it’s no doubt visited by our most common woodpecker, the cute little downy woodpecker. You might occasionally see a much larger, much gaudier woodpecker with a red crown, a plain grayish belly, and a zebra-like black and white back.

That bird is the red-bellied woodpecker.

But, wait, you say there was no red belly?

There isn’t…at least to almost all observers.

You wouldn’t see the reddish feathers unless you were holding the bird in hand and you brushed back some of its feathers in the lower abdomen, ‘round about where it does its business.

Despite its very misleading name, the poorly-labeled bird is something to appreciate.

Fifty or 60 years ago you might not have had that chance on the Niagara Frontier.

Red-bellied woodpeckers were a bird of the southeast. We’re at the northern edge of its range, and sightings of the bird in Western New York were rare right through the early 1960s. But, they spread northward -- at a very dramatic rate -- around then, choosing not just to breed here during our too brief summers, but also to stay all year as well, even through the toughest of winters.

That’s an outcome of two things.

First, you can thank those who, like you, feed birds. The explosive growth in birding led to a significant increase in the number of suet feeders, the fatty goodness of which sustains this inset eaters through the sometimes lean winter months. You’ve given them nourishment and a reason to stay.

Secondly, the closure of small family farms and the return of the land to woodlots and forests gave the woodpeckers the vast habitats they had been lacking.

And, they are having a heyday now in those same forests. They feast on wood-boring beetles, meaning all those dying ash trees you see throughout the area are serving up a smorgasbord for these birds.

Red-bellies will also eat ants and grasshoppers, but they don’t stop at meat. They are omnivores and will consume acorns, beechnuts, and berries in volume. It’s the only woodpecker in the area that will actually store food to eat at a later date, placing the nuts in a cache.

Red-bellied woodpeckers have a loud call, the sound of which has led to a name for them down south: “Chad”. There, they are also named “zebra woodpeckers”. The latter moniker is probably a little more fitting than “red-bellied woodpecker”.

Call them what you will, they are undeniably “handsome” -- they add a lot of color and zest to the otherwise plain winter landscape.

Red-bellies deserve your care and attention with a suet feeder. If you get them to stay in your yard or woodlot they can return the favor in the summer months by eating the pests that might be eating your trees.

That’s a pretty darn good mutually-beneficial relationship to have with a feathered friend.

From the 08 March 2019 All WNY News

Friday, March 1, 2019

Taxation without representation in your power bill

Quite often you see the name of a state agency -- NYSERDA -- appearing in news articles and press releases about energy-efficiency projects, whether they are commercial (windmills, warehouse lights) or residential (appliance swap outs, solar panels).
Chances are you probably didn’t concern yourself with New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. But, you should.

First, grab your most recent electrical bill. Scroll down through the delivery services portion of it. You’ll notice something called "SBC". Depending on how big your household may be, as well as your seasonal needs, the SBC line item ranges from $5 to $10 a month.

That’s not chump change. You’re shelling out $60 to $120 annually, money that both you and I know would be best spent by you and not the government.

You see, the SBC is a tax; it’s not some fancy service fee thrown around by the power company.

The acronym means "Systems Benefit Charge". According to National Grid these funds "reflect costs associated with mandated public policy programs - low income assistance, energy efficiency programs, and certain research and development programs including the advancement of renewable energy resources." The recipient of these fees is the aforementioned NYSERDA.

If you are an astute student of all things government the first thing that comes to mind is "why are we paying taxes to a public authority?"

Authorities are corporate instruments of the State created by the legislature to further public interests. They are basically private enterprises with a public flair that are legally and administratively autonomous from the State, meaning they are accountable to no one but themselves. They are typically funded by user fees and should never be funded by taxes.

Yet, here’s NYSERDA being funded by a tax in your power bill. That makes the systems benefit charge an absolutely classic example of taxation without representation. That’s the same kind of thing that got the colonists all fired up during the American Revolution.

And, it’s the same kind of thing that gets me fired up at the factory.

Long-time readers of this column know how I despise the competitive structure of electricity in New York. My company pays twice what our competitors in Ohio, Indiana and Utah pay for power. That’s pretty significant considering we use as much electricity as two-and-a-half villages the size of Middleport. In my ongoing analysis of what makes my power bill so high I’ve long had the SBC in my sights. Last year, we paid a whopping $83,000 for this tax.

Twelve years ago -- when my company paid “only” $8,250 a year for the SBC and your average homeowner paid half what she does now for it -- I put the matter to the attention of Governor Eliot Spitzer. I was hopeful that the Wall Street Watchdog would have been just as disgusted as I about the unrepresented tax. Spitzer’s director of operations was intrigued and shared my concerns with the Public Service Commission.

In her response to us, the PSC Chairwoman barely addressed my concerns and instead waxed poetic about what NYSERDA supposedly does, like lowering overall electrical demand and costs for New Yorkers. She also noted that, yes, NYSERDA does collect its fees from electrical users but the State has oversight over what it does with its monies. Considering how ineffective that oversight is with the Thruway Authority and nearly 700 other authorities across the state, I could only laugh.

Since then, similar correspondence sharing my concerns with Governor Cuomo have gone unanswered.

That’s what we’re up against, folks: An entity that shouldn’t be taxing us but is, and is allowed to do so at the behest of the State. The State likely allows it to happen because it’s good press for Albany: “Look at everything we are doing to make homes and businesses energy efficient, greener, and cleaner”.

What they fail to tell you is that it’s homes and businesses footing the bill for all the fancy equipment and new appliances. They’ll even give you the misleading end-around that it’s power companies paying the tax (yeah, after they collect it from us).

Whether you’re a family or a company trying to make ends meet in a tough state you should be frustrated with this tax that is, like quite a few others, hidden in your utility bills where you might just never see it and, in turn, never care. 

From the 04 March 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News