Friday, March 31, 2017

China poses a real threat to WNY jobs

Donald Trump became president of the United States for a variety of reasons that voters might have found intriguing during his campaign. One of his biggest selling points was his disdain for Chinese manufacturers and American outsourcers as he believes they pose threats to good-paying manufacturing jobs here in America. That was a populist rallying cry for blue-collar workers which caused many traditionally-Democratic areas and states to turn Republican at the polls in November.

A lot of folks who count themselves as big thinkers – economists, the media, professors, and the corporatists on Wall Street -- have publically stated that fears over China taking our jobs are misguided and that the loss of jobs to overseas competitors is almost mythological. They believe that we no longer need to emphasize the manufacture of goods because we’ve become and/or are better off as a high-tech service economy; that most manufacturing job losses were attributed to robots and productivity; we’re in a global economy that knows no borders; and consumers are better served by lower prices.

That wrong-headed world view about manufacturing posed by those folks, who have a huge impact on public policy, are precisely why manufacturing has been hurting in America. Rules, regulations, taxes, damaging trade agreements, and more that they have helped to develop have crippled the producers that are an absolutely necessary part of our nation’s health.

A service economy doesn’t create wealth. A mixed economy with strong manufacturing, mining, and farming sectors does – the workers, plants, and equipment that make something out of nothing drive a nation’s wealth. For every $1 spent in manufacturing, an extra $1.40 is added to the economy. That’s twice the multiplier effect seen in service.

For that reason, and the obvious one that I have a deeply vested interest in manufacturing, I side with the blue collar view of China’s threat. I’ve seen it firsthand. We live it every day at the plant…and so do other workers in many factories across the region.

As an example, there is a Chinese manufacturer that ripped-off some of the swimming pool steps and ladders that we currently make. The look, feel, design, and even the assembly manuals were all copied to a “t” – except for the name and our one patented portion of the products. Some would say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but that doesn’t make you feel good when you’re certain that the business lost to these cheap goods would keep 24 people busy for two-and-a-half months ever year.

Going further back in time, in the 1970s my dad invented the flexible fuel funnel that you see in almost every garage. When that patent expired in the late-1980s we lost that business because we couldn’t compete with overseas plants, their lower input costs and their ability to fill shipping containers with cheap goods. We haven’t made any of these ubiquitous tools since 1990.

We aren’t alone.

Consider the origin story behind the Made in America Store. That awesome enterprise, which has garnered national acclaim and has become something of a tourism destination, was founded by Mark Andol as a means to overcome the foreign monster that was hurting his first business, General Welding & Fabricating. Low-cost, low-quality Chinese competition forced him to close 2 of his 5 plants and layoff a third of his workforce in 2009.

Mark knew that he needed to “Save Our Country First” (the store’s slogan), so he opened the first of his retail locations in 2010 to showcase goods made by his fellow domestic producers. That store now has multiple locations and carries 7,000 American-made products. While the stores prosper, the back story is still there: Mark still struggles to keep his skilled machinists and welders busy at his factories because of China.

Or, how about General Motors? The one-time Harrison Radiator – Delphi plant in Lockport is busy for sure, employing 1,400. But, that number is only a portion of what it was in its heyday. Some of that is attributed to changes in business models and greater productivity, but hundreds of jobs were no doubt lost to Asian rip-offs. I know engineers and managers who worked there in the 1980s and 1990s who worked with foreign “partners” that ended up stealing ideas and technology and becoming competitors, even going so far as to commit espionage with concealed cameras.               

Then there’s the matter of tire dumping being committed by China for years. The U.S. imported 8.9 million truck and bus tires from China in 2015 worth $1.07 billion, up from 6.3 million units worth $885 million in 2013. Almost all of those tires came in below market rates and were unfairly subsidized by the Chinese government.

Last fall, the US government finally woke up to it and placed tariffs on Chinese tires. But the damage was done. There are 8 plants in the US that make truck tires – one of them, Sumitomo Rubber USA, is right here in Tonawanda.

You see, the specter of China is not some made-up bogeyman. It’s real. China manufacturers are taking jobs from Western New York and taking money out of local families’ pocketbooks.

From the 03 April 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The brown creeper – the ultimate in avian camouflage

When spring warms up the woodlands here on the lake plains we are blessed by visits from an incredible number of songbirds of an equally incredible number of species.

Long before the colorful warblers make their way through here in May when the trees are leafing out and the warblers’ preferred meals of flying insects abound, our early spring woodlots, which seem drearily brown, are graced by a bird that many might consider equally dreary in appearance – the plain hued brown creeper.

But, as with all things in nature, at a closer glance, you will find that this diminutive feathered friend is, in his own way, just as beautiful as those warblers.

I for one find creepers to be utterly fascinating because their camouflage is bested by only a few in the entire bird kingdom (whippoorwills and ptarmigans immediately come to mind). It is a two-pronged cammo, too – they can make themselves difficult to find by both sight and sound.

Creepers are hard to see

Brown creepers do just as their name implies – they creep. They will fly to the bottom of a tree, creep their way up quite a distance, fly away and then creep up another trunk.

They do this in their tireless search for dinner. Whereas the aforementioned warblers flitter about in warm weather chasing down active flying insects, creepers crawl up trees looking for slow moving or stationary creepy-crawlies in every nook, cranny and furrow of a tree.

Being a slow mover who likes to have their beaks and eyes to the wood, they could be considered fair game to predators like sharp-shinned hawks and weasels. But they aren’t – no one can see them.

Not only are creepers small (5” in length) and slender, they also blend in with their surroundings

While their bellies might be white, they are always pressed against a tree. It’s their backs that are exposed to the rest of the world. Those backs are an excellent streaked mix of browns, tans, and white that match the bark they are climbing. They can’t be seen from behind and you can only hope to catch a glimpse of them from the side, or while flying, to know they are there.

Creepers are hard to hear

Many birders who might not have seen creepers at first are notified of their presence by their unique call. It is a very high-pitched note that bird books say sounds like tsee.

But, at the same time, it is so high-pitched that many other birdwatchers can’t even hear it. Older folks or those who might have worked in a factory can’t hear it at all. It is beyond their range of hearing.

On top of that, the pitch is just right and sung into the tree trunk that the bird is virtually a ventriloquist. Even in a small woods it can be difficult to pinpoint where the sound is coming from.

Where to find creepers in WNY

Brown creepers can be found in woodlands and are most abundant in the early spring when those that had made their way south for the winter are passing through en route to Canada.

Even so, many live here all year.

The creepers prefer to live and breed in older, larger forests, so here in WNY you can find them nesting in fair numbers underneath the same bark upon which they feed (using an unusual hammock-like nest) in the higher elevations, especially closer to the Pennsylvania border.

But, on the lake plains it’s a different story. Past editions of the NY breeding bird atlas show only a spotty presence of nests in Niagara and Orleans counties, perhaps something that be chalked up to smaller forests and more farmland, really restricting the birds’ access to the dead trees (and their insect infestations) that they prefer. When the next atlas is produced, though, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more nesting creepers found in those counties due to the numerous woodlots that have taken over former small family farms.

The good news is that unlike many forest songbirds, the brown creeper’s population has been on an upward trend across the Empire State since 1965.

But, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll see them.

They aren’t rare – as a matter of fact they’re almost common in places; it’s just that they hide well, sporting some of the best cammo out there. So, if you see one this spring, consider yourself lucky…and probably possessed of good eyesight or good hearing.

+Bob Confer is a Gasport resident. His column, Exploring the Niagara Frontier, is published every Thursday on All WNY News.

From the 30 March 2017 All WNY News

Photo courtesy the US Fish and Wildlife Service

Friday, March 17, 2017

Nurses are angels on Earth

I had quite the experience a couple of weeks ago.

My son was born 5 weeks premature at Lockport hospital via an emergency c-section. He started off screaming when he came into the world, but when removed from the operating room his breathing became problematic. His retractions were strong and you could see his little ribs as he struggled to get air.

The STAT team from Women and Children’s Hospital was brought in. They had to intubate young Warren and squeeze a bag attached to that tube to help him breathe. He was then whisked away to W&C where I later joined him for a few days while my wife had to stay back at Lockport and recover.

It was a stressful time, but it had a happy ending as mom and son were reunited 3 days later and they were able to come home the next day.

How does one manage those stresses, seeing his newborn son poked, prodded, and hooked to oxygen while his wife was 45 minutes away unable to leave her room?

It was tough, but through those 5 days between 2 hospitals there was one constant that helped us greatly: nurses.

They cheered me on through Warren’s birth; consoled me while Warren was in his moments of crisis; gave me hope for his recovery; gave my little boy tender loving care; nursed him to health and regularly checked on Warren – and me.

They showed love and interest for their littlest patient while doing the same for his doting, half-scared dad. Their care and concern were genuine and done while doing the duties that comes with bringing Warren into this world, checking his vitals, feeding him, testing his blood, making sure his IV and oxygen took, and so much more.

These multifaceted women were truly special. They eliminated my despair and made me feel good about, and trusting of, people and modern medical science.

This wasn’t my first positive experience with nurses.

I try to stay out of the hospital but I ended up in Lockport Hospital back in 1999 after appendix exploded, which I had ignored, chalking it up to food poisoning. That led to a real poisoning of my insides and I came close to dying. I needed emergency surgery and spent almost a week in the hospital while losing 30 pounds which I didn’t have to lose to begin with.  

All of the nurses took really good care of me, day and night, making sure I was battling infection while being kept comfortable – I needed special comfort because after the first day I told them no more pain killers, despite the open 6 inch wound in my abdomen and tubes inside my torso. They were incredible. I can especially remember one nurse, Mrs. Struckman, wheeling me out at the end of the week with a tear in her eye, so happy that I survived what many people wouldn’t have and that I was able to go home.

In both the recent adventure and that one 18 years ago, we were truly and fully cared-for. But, the most remarkable thing was – we weren’t their only patients!  They did a lot not only for my family, but also for other patients and families in those hospitals. Those nurses balanced upon a stressful tightrope over their 12-hour shifts taking care of all of us with our own unique problems.

That’s something nurses do every day, all year, all their working lives, with limited fanfare other than an appreciative smile or tear from a patient’s parent, or the joy that comes with that patient being better and heading home.

In my darkest days when I almost died or when I thought my son might die, nurses were there to save us and give us hope.

That’s more than a career choice; that’s a higher calling!

For that, one cannot help but think that nurses might just be angels on Earth.

I’m so thankful that those wonderful angels are here with us, performing their miracles, small and large, every day.

From the 20 March 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Peepers – coming to a spring near you

After getting spring fever during February’s unusual warm spell we were brought back to reality by this week’s winter storm.

As you peer out your window it doesn’t look like spring is less than a week away. But it is. As a matter of fact it has been to a certain extent with the return of good numbers of robins, bluebirds and other songbirds and their symphonies.

By the end of this month, Western New Yorkers will be greeted by another melody but from an entirely different creature – a diminutive amphibian, the spring peeper.

Late-March to late-April marks the breeding season for peepers in the northern portion of Western New York. The southern half, especially the southern third closer to the Pennsylvania border, might see peepers breeding into the first week of May due to the cooler temperatures associated with the higher elevations and the deep valleys.

While this breeding season is underway, peepers court one another with, well, peeps. If you live near a pond, marsh, or slow moving stream, head outdoors a few hours before sunset and for forty minutes after. That birdlike pee-eeep, a half-second long in duration, sound comes from these male treefrogs.

If that watering hole is the pick-up joint for dozens if not hundreds of peepers, the collective sound (which some have compared to sleigh bells) is amazing. Together, it becomes a high-pitched trill which can be deafening. This year, to prove my point, I will be bringing home from work my newfangled noise meter to measure how loud their calls are. Last spring’s cumulative chorus at our pond was overwhelming. Could it exceed 90 decibels? We’ll see, and I’ll be sure to follow up with a note in this column.  

It’s truly amazing how much sound can come out of a creature so small. Spring peepers are three-quarters of an inch to an inch-and-a-quarter in length. They are wee animals, far smaller than their cousins, the toads and frogs (as a matter of fact, most frogs could eat them). They are light brown to grey with a dark diagonal cross or “x” on their back.

You’ve likely never seen a spring peeper – they are not only small, but they are timid. If you get close to their breeding pond, they will stop singing and hide.

Next month, when they are done increasing their populations, the peepers will leave those ponds and head into the woods to climb trees and grasses to spend the rest of the year feeding on small invertebrates.

Despite their secrecy, they are among the most abundant amphibians on the Niagara Frontier, as made evident by their calls alone.

If you live in the city and never had the chance to listen to spring peepers, make it a point to drive out to a wetland like the Iroquois Wildlife Refuge or Tifft Nature Preserve to catch the spring peepers in action in the coming weeks. Their choruses are interesting and one of the true, honest-to-goodness signs of spring.

From the 16 March 2017 All WNY News

New rules will change the trucking industry

Tractor trailers are ubiquitous in Niagara County. That’s because we are one of those rare communities that still makes and grows things. Factories such as General Motors and farms like Bittner-Singer Orchards ship their products and produce all over the country and it takes a steady flow of big rigs to move their wares to and fro. On top of that, the Buffalo-Niagara international bridges serve as a conduit for more than $80 billion of trade annually.

That said, for many of us working in the county, our jobs are directly impacted by trucks on a daily basis. So, it’s imperative that we be kept aware of changes in regulations that ultimately affect every one of us.

Among them is a critical one that changes the way that records are kept.

By December 18 of this year, all long-haul truckers must ditch the old paper logbooks and equip their vehicles with electronic logging devices (ELDs) per regulations issued from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

This is the government’s way of eliminating the cheating that was occurring on some paper logs. Fudging reports allowed many long-haul drivers to exceed the legal daily limit of 11 hours a day on the road. The ELDs take the human factor out of the equation, by hooking directly to a truck’s engine and recording movement and time.

It won’t be a cheap endeavor to implement. It is estimated that there are a half-million trucking firms in the US (many of them being independent operators) with a total of 3 million drivers falling into the long haul category. Due to the purchase cost (most units exceed $500) and installation costs of the devices, the FMCSA believes the changeover will cost $1 billion. They also say that there will be net savings for the trucking industry because it will save, per their statisticians and economists, a total of $2.4 billion in paper logs over time. 

The FMCSA believes that no matter the cost it is worth it for the lives saved. They estimate that ELDs will cut back on driver fatigue and in turn prevent 1,800 crashes, 600 injuries and more than two dozen deaths every single year. 

This new mandate does not impact the countless drivers who are not required to maintain logbooks right now. The short haul truck drivers who keep time cards and make deliveries within a 100-mile air radius can stick with business as usual.

While the ELDs represent a necessary rule change that has been a long-time coming, the Obama Administration never addressed the domino effect. With many truckers breaking the rules regarding service hours now, the loss of hours will equal less product moved and slower deliveries; it already has for Arkansas companies that had to meet that state’s 2010 mandate.  

To overcome that the industry will have to recruit more drivers, something they’ve been trying for years with limited success. You can chalk that up to an education system which for too long overemphasized college over the trades and certificates. Support for trucking went the way of mechanics, machinists, electricians and plumbers.

We need government and schools to institute a culture change to ensure that our goods are moved in a timely, efficient and cheap fashion for the long run. You like your Amazon Prime. You love having fresh produce at the grocery store. Those items get there because of truck drivers!

Remember how sexy truck driving was in the 1970s during the oil embargo and CB radio craze? How do we make it that attractive again to today’s students and tomorrow’s workers?   

From the 06 March 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers