Weekly Journal

Here's a compilation of everyday thoughts and articles I've written. Many have been published as part of my recurring columns in the News Messenger, the twice-weekly paper in Montgomery County, Virginia.

Thursday
Oct252018

* * Seymour Staffing may know about your next job

Are you looking for a job? Perhaps a better job? Are you mechanically inclined with a good job history? If so, Tracy Seymour-Miller may know about your next job.

Tracy is a transplant from North Carolina who arrived here in 2014 when her husband was hired as director of a company new to our area. She hung her shingle as Seymour Staffing and opened an office on North Franklin Street in Christiansburg. Her woman owned company has extensive experience in all aspects of manufacturing recruiting and human resources.

We’ve seen millions of manufacturing jobs leave America in the last couple of generations, and thousands of plant closings. But according to Seymour, rumors of the death of manufacturing in America are premature. “We always see ups and downs,” she told me, waving her hand like an ocean wave, “but right now we’re on a high. I worked for a manufacturer in 2008 when we let lots of employees go and shut plants down. Now we’re definitely on an uptick. We have client companies who are looking to hire 20 or more people.

“We are in the direct hire staffing business,” she said. “What that means is that we recruit and screen job applicants for companies looking to hire. We specialize in the manufacturing sector. A company might be having a hard time finding talent. If we send them a prospective hire, the company knows that we’ve already screened them for applicable skills and experience, in some cases for background issues and drugs. Many times, they’ll offer a job that same day.”

Tracy is an ebullient, dark-haired woman with a bright smile and infectious enthusiasm. “We hire at all levels from company presidents or vice presidents to maintenance and line workers and custodians. Right now, companies are having trouble staffing in technical jobs. High schools and community colleges are not educating enough students in the trades, people who can operate and fix equipment, things like lathes, milling machines, and robots. Many skilled people are retiring, and younger kids are often steered towards college instead of trade schools.”

She said her background in manufacturing has introduced her to the types of people and skills that can fill these positions. “We know people who know people who know people. We pay for referrals.

“We can use networking tools and social media to find people. Sometimes corporations have rules preventing them from using these tools. Lots of people we work with are already working, but for whatever reason are looking for a change. Sometimes they want to move to a new area. Sometimes they’re unhappy with new management or the direction their company is taking. People leave jobs because of bosses, not jobs. Money is not the factor it once was. People are looking to work at a solid company that provides benefits.”

Tracy explained that her company is compensated by the employer, her client, who pays a commission based upon the hires’ first year salary.

Originally from Maryland, Tracy thought of Virginia as that drive-through state on her way to North Carolina. “I never imagined that I would be living in Virginia. My husband moved first and then I followed with the kids a year later. We live in Riner and my daughter said she’d never want to go back (to NC).

“Business is really good right now. Lots of companies are doing well and are hiring. The unemployment rate is low, so workers are more in demand. Companies are paying better, offering signing bonuses, and better benefits in order to get good employees. A maintenance technician can make anywhere from $20/hr. to $33/hr., more in higher cost cities.” The company has clients in several southeastern states.

“Manufacturing is now highly automated, but companies still need people. Robots may do all the actual work. But people are needed to monitor the robots and fix them if they break. People are needed to install robots or move entire assembly lines to other parts of the facility. They need different types of people than in decades past, different skills.

“Kids are now mostly directed to college. The new generation doesn’t think manufacturing is exciting. It is, and there is money to be made! There are good careers for people who know how to put things together, know how to do wiring or welding or repair. Some people have an innate skill to look at how a machine is working and envision ways to make it work better, faster, and more efficiently. There is money to be made in manufacturing.”

I said, “We’ve been conditioned to think that manufacturing left America twenty or thirty years ago for China, Taiwan, or Japan.”

“It’s still here,” Tracy said. “America is still ripe for entrepreneurship. I know of companies started by individuals who invent a machine or a process and build a company around it. America is still a good place for manufacturing. Things are changing and that’s exciting. There are opportunities for good people. People can make good money, good livings.”

Thursday
Oct252018

* * Habitat For Humanity builds community 

Shelley Fortier is working to provide boots, so to speak. She’s the Executive Director of the local affiliate of the Habitat For Humanity. There’s an old expression about people picking themselves up by the bootstraps. Some people face daunting financial obstacles. Habitat For Humanity helps people in a real, tangible way to make improvements in their lives, by helping them achieve home ownership.

Hers is a fascinating story that led her to that position. She told me, “I was raised in Blacksburg and went to Virginia Tech. I got a degree in Political Science, but I entered the corporate world.” She met her husband Joe in New Jersey, and had a series of jobs in the New York, New Jersey, and New England areas, and then in California, working in management for retail chain stores.

“He finished a graduate degree from Berkeley in Energy Resources. We were both pushing 40 and were asking ourselves what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives. My parents were still in Blacksburg and we ended up moving back here.”

They arrived with two kids, great job skills, no plans, and no jobs. “One day, Joe came home and said, ‘I bought a building in Radford.’ He had a vision. He thought Radford needed a coffee shop and more affordable housing. They have an inventory of great, historic buildings.”

They have gone on to purchase several other downtown buildings in Radford and Blacksburg, and most recently the old Prices Fork Elementary School. Meanwhile, Shelley started volunteering for Habitat For Humanity. Habitat was founded in 1976 in Georgia, and is the largest not-for-profit home builder in the world.

So Joe came out of financial services, and became a developer and carpenter. Shelley came out of corporate retailing and became immersed in providing affordable housing. How did that happen?

“We looked at investing in rental properties. Many landlords bought substandard buildings and never improved them. They were low quality and not putting anything back into them. We believe in fairness. Conversations about privilege always made me uncomfortable. We worked hard. My parents worked hard. Yet my successes stand on their shoulders and theirs on their parents’. That’s privilege. I had that. Not everybody has that. Some people can’t pick themselves up by the bootstraps because they’ve never had boots. I had boots.

“We are social entrepreneurs. We live here. We’re going to invest in the community.”

They got grants and subsidies from a variety of sources. Historic tax credits. HUD money. Private investments. Then they got income from their tenants.

“I saw that Habitat was opening the ReStore in Christiansburg. With my retail background, I thought, ‘That I can do.’ I volunteered lots of hours.

“Everybody knows Habitat as a construction company. We facilitate the energy of human and financial resources of a community to build affordable houses. We are a retailer. We are a lender. We do family counseling, primarily financial counseling. We are housing advocates. The homes we build are sold, not given away. The buyer pays us back at zero interest, and we put that money into more homes.

“Affordable housing leads to a strong economy. Big corporations won’t move here if their $14/hour employees can’t find affordable housing. Companies seek a stable, motivated workforce that can find inexpensive housing. Stable households build stable communities, and stable communities build stable economies.

“I describe my job as popping corn without a lid. I try to catch a combination of land, money, home buyers, and community energy in the same bowl at generally the same time to make a project come to fruition. There is no typical day.

 “Our donor dollar never dies. When someone donates to us, the home buyer pays it back over time. It fuels itself for the next one. The community invests. The family invests. Lots of people have skin in the game. Our buyers build confidence as home owners. We don’t give them boots. We sell them affordable boots and they build themselves up. I spoke with one of our homeowners and he said ‘I was surprised that there are people out there who will come and invest their day for me and my family. I only hope that me and my family can do the same thing for someone else.’ It’s powerful stuff; it’s what love looks like. When volunteers devote their days off to build a home for someone, it builds communities. That’s where the value of life is.

“I have a lot of good days in this job. I’m not an emotional person, but when have dedication days, when we hand someone the Certificate of Occupancy and a set of keys to their new house, it gets me every time. It’s the culmination of all that love.”

Two major Habitat projects are in the works, a single family home in Christiansburg and a multi-tenant apartment in Blacksburg. Visit the website at www.habitatnrv.org for more information and volunteer opportunities.

Thursday
Oct252018

* * Catching up with Jim Politis

I wrote about Jim Politis almost four years ago as he was working to get the state legislature to allow Virginia farmers to grow industrial hemp for fuel, oil, and fiber. Finally, he’s been successful. Here’s how it came down.

“In 2015, the General Assembly, in their Farm Bill, added a provision to allow universities to grow and experiment with industrial hemp for experimental purposes,” he told me. “Virginia State University in Petersburg and Virginia Tech began growing at their research farms. James Madison University has no agricultural land, so they were allowed to work with local farmers. All these schools have agricultural departments.”

“VSU began looking into vegetable oil for food and fuel. Tech’s work was more in fiber. All three researched seed production. Each region is suitable to different crops for different needs. Our area is best for fiber.

“Seed crops are planted with less density,” he said. “Fiber crops are tight, and grow straighter and taller, up to 15 feet. Cotton and flax are other fiber crops, but in comparison, hemp is stronger, it takes less chemicals and water, and has four times the yield per acre.

“We also have legalized medicinal cannabis in Virginia. There are five pharmaceutical houses in Virginia to process it. People I know are using it as a crème to rub on arthritis, or swallowing it as a tincture.

 “The Federal Government is still working on their legislation. But meanwhile, Virginia is moving forward and will now allow farmers to grow. Legalization of industrial hemp has wide bi-partisan appeal.”

I asked what constituency might be against it.

Jim said, “The only thing I can logically say is that perhaps the corporations are against it. Hemp will be a competitor to the big guys. It can become a commodity.

 “With the state opening the doors to industrial hemp, farmers will begin to grow it. Farmers are entrepreneurial people. They’ll experiment and see what makes money for them. I think it’s the last step towards my long efforts. Now we’ll still need to see how it’s regulated. And they’ll need to have customers to sell it. For ten years, I’ve been working on this, and this is a big victory. It’s huge! I was one of the leaders, and when you work on something for a long time and are successful, it’s satisfying.”

During the process, Jim faced serious medical issues. He’d long had problems with his heart. After a bout with pneumonia from which he suffered for weeks, it was determined that he would need a new heart to survive. “My left ventricle stopped pumping,” he said. “I had had a defibrillator put in. My cardiologist said ‘Jim, you just need to slow down.’ I was on the (Montgomery County) Board (of Supervisors) then and I couldn’t slow down. I had a farm and a store. I went to the University Of Virginia Medical Center. They said I had heart failure, and my heart was only pumping half the volume it should.

“I had a heart transplant, and now have a heart from a young man of 21 from Atlanta. The surgery was terrible. I was there for 8-1/2 months.”

After many transplants, patients leave in 10 days. But he had lots of infections and four more surgeries. The whole shebang cost $3.1 million. His insurer paid $250,000, as that was all they would allow for that procedure. He paid a few thousand. UVA absorbed the rest.

I said, “So UVA has invested in you to the tune of almost $3 million.”

“Yes,” he joked, “But I taught them all about hemp. Guess what? They’re going to finally grow it at UVA!

“I’ve always been an activist. I was one of the first farmers around here to grow buffalo. I’ve always taken risks. It kept me energized. We made lots of tough decisions in my 16 years on the Board. I wouldn’t change a single vote. The two big things I did to impact our area were the buffalo store and hemp. We sold the farm and the store. I’m volunteering at Tech with their hemp research. I’m still working with the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition.

“For some reason I made it through (my heart problems). I was being wheeled after one of my surgeries back to my room from the recovery room. The nurse said, ‘I hope you make it. Most people don’t.’ I said, ‘I’ll be back.’ My determination and will to live saved me.”

Thursday
Oct252018

* * The airlines are making us miserable

Undeniably, one of the most awesome aspects of life in the modern era is that if you can afford it, tomorrow you can be anywhere in the world. In 1492, it took Columbus two months to cross the Atlantic and discover (How can you discover a continent that already had 7,000,000 people on it? That’s a topic for another day.) America, but now you can fly from Spain to Hispaniola in eight hours. Sadly, it’s a far less comfortable experience than it could be, and the airlines are making it so on purpose.

At no time in my life am I happier that I’m small in stature than when flying. I stand a mere 5-feet 5-inches and have a short 27-inch inseam, yet I’m still cramped in an airline passenger seat. This was painfully obvious on a recent trip to Italy, where the return transatlantic flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia left me sore and angry. I’ve learned since that the airlines want customers sore and angry. Because it makes them more money.

Like many aspects of the past, when in public life, people were more formal. Look at any photo of people attending a baseball game or boarding a train 100 years ago, and you’ll see men wearing ties and top-hats, and women wearing dresses, hats, and make-up. Train travel, even into the 1950s, was an elegant affair, with uniformed conductors and dining car waiters who polished fine silverware and china between meals. Manners and civility were practiced in every interaction, and the RR companies and emerging airlines treated customers with the utmost respect. That’s all gone now. There was a point in time that must have slipped by me when profits overwhelmed humanity.

Today’s airlines have discovered that they can make more money and increase their profits by tacking on additional fees for things they routinely provided every customer in the price of their ticket. You want to take luggage with you? That’ll cost more. You want to eat something? That’ll cost more. You want legroom or a seat large enough for a standard human being? Still more.

The airlines are totally conscious of this abuse. They even have a name for it: calculated misery. They’re purposefully making us miserable because making us miserable makes them more profitable. Sure, it’s antagonistic, baleful. But if you want to get somewhere distant in a reasonable period of time, you have few choices. Basically what they’re doing is making their baseline service, air travel, so wretched that you’ll pay more to avail yourself a happier experience.

Of all the sinister things the airline does, making their jets more crowded is tops. With each generation of new planes, they order seats that are marginally smaller and closer together than before and cram more seats inside. Poor you if the person sitting next to you is, shall we charitably say, large, as his or her pulpy arms spill over onto your shared armrest. Pity you even more if YOU are that large person, because you’re miserable all around. Not only are you fighting for side-by-side space, but your legs are jammed into the seat in front of you and whenever that passenger moves, it jars you. Movement up and down the hallways – god forbid you need to tinkle on an eight-hour flight – is similarly fraught with unpleasant interactions with other passengers.

Airlines do this because they can. You’d never return to a restaurant that seated you at a different table from your date, charged you for water, kicked you out if someone arrived willing to pay more, or forced you to pay to use the toilet. Restaurants typically have competitors, and they know they’d lose your business if they treat you like vermin.

Conversely, with few exceptions, the airlines face little competition in their various routes. After decades of mergers, almost the entirety of the domestic market is comprised of only four airlines: Delta, American, United, and Southwest. So even if one of these airlines treats you and your traveling family like cockroaches, there’s little you can do about it. They know, and their computer models show, that one bad experience is enough to get many customers to fork over more money to avoid the next one. The skies are now distinctly unfriendly.

Maybe this is our fault. We’ve all bought into the Walmartization of consumerism, where the lowest price is everything. Shame on us; you get what you pay for. Still, it’s maddening.

You might be reading this, smugly thinking that you never (or seldom) fly, and are thus unaffected. Consider that Congress is now evaluating scrapping laws on Net Neutrality, meaning the Internet service providers will be able to monitor your usage and charge for services and upgrades accordingly. Prepare yourself for that calculated misery.

Next time I travel, I’m going to take a train.

Thursday
Oct252018

* * A big change in the House

Did you feel the ground shake on Election Day?

Especially in the Virginia House of Delegates, the results couldn’t have been more surprising. Democrats won in a “wave” election, sweeping lots of new Delegates into office, many in districts not previously thought to be competitive, and potentially yielding a Democratic majority, something nobody thought was possible. AND Democrat Ralph Northam defeated Ed Gillespie for Governor by a margin not seen in a generation.

So what happened?

Four years ago, I ran for the House in District 7, encompassing some of Blacksburg, some of Christiansburg, all of south Montgomery County, all of Floyd County, and most of Pulaski County. My joke goes that I ran a successful campaign, but not as successful as my opponent. At the time, Delegate Nick Rush was a one-term incumbent Republican in a heavily Republican district. I understood that my chances were slim, but wanted to give him a challenge.

Two years ago he ran unchallenged. I saw him shopping at a hardware store on the Saturday before the election. No need to campaign if you don’t have an opponent! This year he easily defeated newcomer Flo Ketner.

After my loss, I spoke with former congressman Rick Boucher. He said the political winds shift over time, and a similar wave that swept him from office in 2010 could sweep many Democrats back into competitiveness. That’s apparently what happened this year.

When I ran, if I remember correctly, there were 88 incumbents (with 12 open seats due to retirement) who faced 44 challengers and only 2 lost. Two years ago, there were a similar number of incumbents and none of them lost. I concluded it was extremely difficult to unseat an incumbent, largely because of the gerrymandering of the districts.

Gerrymandering, as you recall from high school government class (You loved government, didn’t you?), is packing large majorities of voters for party “A” into a small number of districts to obtain smaller majorities for party “B” in many districts, thus ensuring more wins for party “B.”

Currently we’re operating under Republican-defined districts, to their benefit. (To be fair, in the past Democrats did much the same thing.) Consistently, we’ve had more votes cast state-wide for Democrats and more Republican winners, evidenced by the House of Delegates that prior to this election had 66 Republicans and 34 Democrats and the federal House of Representatives that has 7 Republicans and 4 Democrats.

Nevertheless, this time, the Democrats, most of them women, astoundingly picked up at least 15 House seats, with another 3 too close to call, potentially shifting the entire balance. Many of these districts were considered so heavily gerrymandered to the Republicans that in prior elections, Democrats didn’t even try.

The most enticing race was in Prince William County. It pitted 13 term Republican Bob Marshall against Danica Roem, a journalist, rock musician, political newcomer, and the first openly transgender person to ever run. Marshall described himself as Virginia’s “chief homophobe,” who authored Virginia’s version of the “bathroom bill,” that was so

pilloried in North Carolina. Roem won by almost 3000 votes! I’m not making this up; a transgender woman beat a conservative homophobic man.

Apparently culture war issues don’t win elections any more. We’re a Newer Dominion now.

How were Democrats able to overcome this structural handicap? The Monday morning quarterbacks are still busily analyzing the contests, but I think it can be mostly attributed to the retribution of women and people of color against the ascension of Donald Trump. David Toscano, the leader of House Democrats said, “The day after the Trump election, it began raining candidates in Virginia.”

Since the Republicans won complete control of the Congress and the White House, they’ve sputtered. No repeal of the Affordable Care Act. No new immigration policy. No border wall. Zero major legislation. The tax reform bill they’re working on doesn’t even have total support from their own party. To me, what happened that Tuesday was buoyed by anti-Trump, anti-Republican sentiment and may be a model of things to come in 2018.

Beyond the partisan brinksmanship, what can we expect legislatively? I suspect we’ll join the 32 other states so far that have passed the Medicaid Expansion that will benefit hard-working people in low-wage jobs that are now uninsured, something outgoing Governor Terry McAuliffe worked tirelessly but unsuccessfully to accomplish. With most of the new winners being women, I suspect we’ll see no more efforts to diminish rights of women to control their own bodies. And I suspect we’ve seen the last effort to pass legislation dictating where someone must pee.

Election tallies show that the Democratic areas became more Democratic and the Republican areas became more Republican, underscoring the continuing polarization of politics. And, for better or worse, our sparsely populated area of SWVA is increasingly dominated by Northern Virginia.

It’ll be fascinating to see how these trends play out moving forward. Hold on tight!