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Business
Talent shortage hampering local construction industry

Cornelius Debase, a 19-year-old, first-semester student at Texas State Technical College, fits the description of what many employers want these days, with jobs in construction and related industries going begging.

Debase, who graduated high school in Waxahachie, hopes to become a welder, a profession that holds the promise of an hourly wage approaching $28, “double that if the work is underwater,” he said Thursday while visiting a job expo hosted by TSTC.

About 95 companies, some with an international presence, set up displays, chatted with students and accepted resumes during a four-hour session at the Student Recreation Center. With an hour left on the clock, more than 700 TSTC students and alumni had registered, an official said.

“Many of these companies represent industries where jobs are in great demand,” career services executive director Kacey Darnell said. “We’re talking about advanced manufacturing, just about anything in the construction trades, welding, robotics, advanced manufacturing and transportation.”

A shortage of skilled labor is plaguing homebuilding efforts and other construction around the state, according to industry experts.

“The forecast for housing markets in Texas looks good, but there remains a lack of inventory, which is being aggravated by the labor situation,” said Luis Torres, a research economist at the Texas A&M University Real Estate Center. “More than 60 percent of home sales involve properties priced lower than $300,000, but there is a shortage of such homes in larger metropolitan areas due to this issue.”

Not having a reliable supply of plumbers, electricians, carpenters and air-conditioning technicians leads to higher housing costs and work delays, Torres said.

“The economy is basically at full employment, and there are a record number of job openings across the country, so there are shortages in a number of sectors, particularly those in technology and health care,” Waco-based economist Ray Perryman wrote in an email response to questions.

The construction sector has been hardest hit by far, Perryman said.

“Part of it is the growth in population in Texas and commercial/industrial activity, and part of it is the diversion of resources to the Gulf Coast region in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey,” he said.

Immigration also affects the availability of workers to fill construction jobs, Perryman said.

“About 250,000, or 40 percent, of the Texas construction workforce is undocumented, and sanctuary city laws, increased enforcement and talk of stricter rules going forward are limiting this supply,” he said. “Whatever your politic, it is a simple case of mathematics that Texas needs those workers and does not have another ready source available.”

Scott Bland, a local builder and president of the Heart of Texas Builders Association, said the days of recruiting a few people from the neighborhood to build houses have passed. City and national building codes and stylistic flourishes demand crews with greater skills.

“We’ve spent the last 40 years telling students they either go to college or they are failures,” Bland said. “The message is that they don’t really want to be an electrician. Well, give me the earning potential of someone with an electrician’s certificate over someone with a liberal arts degree from Baylor University. I’m paying about $34 an hour for their services.”

Jobs in construction paying $40,000 to $60,000 a year are going unfilled, he said.

“The city of Waco spent two years trying to find an inspector, and they did not see a qualified applicant in all that time because one requirement was being a licensed plumber,” Bland said.

K. Paul Holt, executive director of Waco’s Associated General Contractors of America office, said he is seeing “an accelerating shortage of skilled craft and tradespeople,” but believes help is on the horizon.

“I just attended a Skillpoint Alliance graduation for several people who completed an eight-week heating, ventilation and air conditioning quick-start training program,” Holt said. “The TSTC construction trades department continues to blossom and get larger. They are doing a great job out there. And the AGC and the HOT Builders just donated about $50,000 apiece to create a construction academy with the Waco school district, and a ribbon-cutting is scheduled soon.”

About 40 students are already enrolled in the Greater Waco Construction Science Academy, he said.

“The biggest shortage we are seeing is like trying to name a favorite child,” Bland said. “The median age of licensed electricians and plumbers is in the upper 50s, and that number is not coming down. It’s a huge problem, which is why we see the academy, which will accept students from districts all over McLennan County, as so important.”

Also important is a bill the Texas Legislature passed during its last session, with State Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, leading the charge, Bland said. The legislation makes it more economically feasible for business and industry to hire students for paid internships.

“Insurance carriers were telling us that if we put high school kids on the job, they would drop their coverage,” Bland said. “The Legislature made a change allowing coverage of those engaged in a career technical education internship similar to coverage for students taking field trips.”

Counting cash and in-kind donations of material, the Associated General Contractors and Heart of Texas Builders Association actually donated about $200,000 to Waco ISD’s academy, he said.

He also would like colleges and universities to work with students on six- to seven-year programs of coursework that would allow them to secure construction-related jobs as they study, Bland said.

“Stop selling the four-year degree,” he said. “The industry is in such a desperate state that heating, ventilation and air conditioning, electrical and plumbing companies would work with students on their schedules, making it possible to work while going to school. There is no way they would graduate in four years, but they would graduate in six or seven, and they would leave school without debt.”


Health
Battling vets’ depression
Waco VA offering brain stimulation for veterans suffering from depression

John Eline, a Gulf War veteran who left the U.S. Army in 2010 after a 24-year career, increasingly started to feel an uneasiness creep into his psyche, a foreboding that interfered with his ability to concentrate.

He could not quite put his finger on the lingering problem, but little things told him all was not right. A consultation with his doctor revealed he was suffering from depression, and he received a prescription for medication.

But the side effects proved unpleasant, and when the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Clinic was preparing to open in Waco, he signed up for a trial run. He agreed to allow powerful electromagnetic waves to stimulate targeted regions of his brain.

After leaving active duty, Eline, now 48, became a budget analyst at the Doris Miller Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Waco, so he had a short walk to the new brain center at the VA dedicated to helping returning war veterans cope with mental health issues related to their service.

“I noticed the biggest change after my first session. I felt lighter,” Eline said. “I know that’s not a clinical term, but that’s the best way I can describe the sensation. I was more relaxed, not euphoric but lighter mentally. There definitely was a change.”

Eline said he wondered if he was experiencing a placebo effect, an improvement in mood simply because he believed the treatment could work, not because it was actually working.

“But the next day, my wife asked me if I had done something different, that I seemed better,” Eline said. “I told her that, in fact, I was involved in this new program. Then my kids also noticed, and that reinforced what I was thinking. And my improvement has persisted.”

Eline said he would highly recommend the therapy to other veterans who are concerned about the use of psychotropic drugs or who have suffered disappointing results from other treatments for depression.

“You come in, sit down and have a helmet strapped to your head,” he said. “There is no pain, no discomfort. You may have some muscle twitching in the face, but you don’t really feel anything but tingling of the scalp.”

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation is an approach to treating depression approved by the Food and Drug Administration, said Dr. Richard Seim, spokesman for the VISN 17 Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans at the Waco VA. The facility sprawls across 53,000 square feet of Building 93 at the hospital on Memorial Drive and now includes the TMS Clinic that formally opened to veterans this week.

“Unlike electroconvulsive therapy, which induces an electric shock to the brain, TMS simply uses a mild magnetic wave,” Seim said. “Because of this, the treatment can be delivered without anesthesia, and there is no risk of memory loss.”

Seim said the treatment is available to veterans throughout Central Texas, including those from Austin, Temple and Waco. It is intended for veterans already receiving inpatient or outpatient depression treatment and can be offered at no cost if a doctor recommends it.

Three veterans took part in trials at the local clinic, which has some of the most advanced TMS equipment available, Seim said.

“It is a fairly new technology and fairly new in the VA system, something that was experimental for several years,” Seim said. “The FDA now has approved it for chronic depression, for re-stimulating certain parts of the brain during 20 to 30 sessions. Our machine, which is not found in most places, goes deeper into subcortical structures in its treatment of depression, which evidence has shown is a brain-based disorder. It’s not simply in someone’s head. It has a neurological correlate, and we try to address those issues and provide some relief.”

Seim said the machine is manufactured by Brainsway. According to the company’s website, TMS therapy is effective for Alzheimer’s disease, bipolar disorder, chronic pain, major depressive disorder, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, multiple sclerosis, obsessive compulsive disorder, stroke rehabilitation and for smoking cessation.

“At the VA, the therapy has been FDA-approved only for treatment of depression,” said Dr. Geoffrey May, who directs the TMS Clinic in Waco. “It is not approved for use alone in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, which is co-morbid with depression.

“Research continues on whether it can be used all by itself, which includes the use of brain scans before and after treatment, and we hope to build a case for FDA consideration. If it does receive clearance, that opens up exciting possibilities.”

A VA report released last year shows between 11 and 20 percent of veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom suffer from PTSD and about 12 percent of Gulf War veterans suffer PTSD.

Another VA study released last year shows an average of 20 veterans a day die by suicide and that the suicide rate among veterans is 22 percent higher than the country’s general adult population.


Health care enrollment counselors facing stiff challenges
Health care enrollment counselors facing stiff challenges

MIAMI — It’s not easy being an advocate for the Affordable Care Act right now.

Health care advocacy groups are making an against-all-odds effort to sign people up despite confusion and hostility fostered by Republicans opposed to President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement.

The Trump administration has taken numerous steps to undermine the law, and many states are doing little to promote coverage as health insurance open enrollment begins this week. Health care advocates are particularly concerned about people in Republican-led states with hundreds of thousands of uninsured residents, like Florida, Texas and Georgia.

Many of these groups are scrambling to fill in the gaps and combat misinformation, helping people decide which insurance policies are best for them and encouraging them to act quickly during the tight enrollment period of Nov. 1 through Dec. 15.

A coalition of nonprofits in Kansas’ largest county paid $66,000 for a television commercial airing 500 times in the coming weeks and created fliers dispelling myths about the law. They’re being sent home in the backpacks of 20,000 students, and distributed with utility bills to another 8,000 residents. They also hired 12 new enrollment counselors, up from their usual four.

“We knew that we needed to band together,” said Molly Moffett of the Community Health Council of Wyandotte County.

President Donald Trump repeatedly claims that the Affordable Care Act is in a death spiral, and has withdrawn support for it in many ways, fostering turmoil that has prompted many insurers to drop out or raise rates by double digits. The consulting firm Avalere Health predicted that individual plans bought through the health insurance marketplaces will rise an average of 34 percent nationwide.

Now that it’s time to enroll again, his administration has slashed marketing budgets completely in some areas, and shortened the sign-up period from 12 weeks to six. Across the country, Trump cut spending on health care counselors, or navigators, by roughly 40 percent, from $62.5 million to $36.8 million, and reduced advertising from $100 million spent last year to $10 million, according to federal health officials.

Almost every state will feel the spikes at a time when enticing consumers to sign up for coverage has never been harder.

In Florida, where premiums are expected to rise 49 percent, the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida is hosting a handful of house parties during which navigators will assist with sign-ups.

Victor Rodriguez said during a phone-banking session in Miami that he recently began getting insurance through disability, but he’s planning to re-enroll his wife through the federal marketplace.

“I’m concerned that (the law) is going to go away or the premiums are going to be very high and we are going to be priced out,” he said.

In Ohio, the largest state navigator group shuttered its program after losing nearly 88 percent of its funding, dropping from $1.7 million to $486,000. The group helped sign-up about 10,000 residents last year, said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director Ohio Association of Food Banks.

It was similar in Iowa, where Planned Parenthood of the Heartland in Des Moines dropped out after its funding went from more than $304,000 last year to $45,000.

Shelli Quenga leads South Carolina’s navigator program under the Palmetto Project, which previously served all 46 counties in the state. This year, her group will be in only the most densely populated areas after losing nearly half its funding. Rural areas will feel the brunt.

“You have so much land to cover and not very much money to do it,” said Quenga. “Our state is mostly rural, so that means traveling great distances between small numbers of people, and it’s just not cost-effective to do that when you also only have six weeks.”

Health policy experts and insurers also worry the cuts and misinformation could disrupt the market’s delicate balance — meaning more sick people will sign up because they need insurance the most, while those who are younger and healthier (and wait longer to sign up) will stay away. One group that targets this crowd, Young Invincibles, has beefed up social media efforts around the county and has had a surge of volunteers.

“That lack of awareness and confusion over what’s available has kind of tripled and become so much more difficult this year because of all the repeal efforts in Congress,” said Erin Hemlin, a director with Young Invincibles.


GOP tax plan would slash corporate rate, help wealthiest
GOP tax plan would slash corporate rate, help wealthiest

WASHINGTON — House Republicans on Thursday unveiled a tax cut plan that would slash the corporate rate and lower the personal taxes of most Americans but also limit a cherished deduction for homeowners, as President Donald Trump and the GOP seek to deliver on the first tax revamp in three decades.

The proposal would add $1.5 trillion to the nation’s debt over the next decade as Republicans largely abandoned fiscal discipline in a plan that could secure a legislative achievement for Trump and score a political win ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

Trump promised in a statement that his administration “will work tirelessly to make good on our promise to the working people who built our nation and deliver historic tax cuts and reforms — the rocket fuel our economy needs to soar higher than ever before.”

Middle-income families would pay less, thanks to doubling of the standard deduction and an increase in the child tax credit. Wealthy Americans, like Trump, would benefit from the repeal of the alternative minimum tax and phase-out of the estate tax. Republicans calculate that a family of four with a median $60,000 income would receive a tax cut of almost $1,200.

However, many two-income, upper middle class families would pay more after being bumped into a higher tax bracket and losing a valuable deduction on state income taxes.

“Today is the day. We are introducing legislation that will cut your taxes & make the entire system more simple. This will be a game-changer,” Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said on Twitter.

401(k) rules stay in place

The proposal would leave intact the existing rules on 401(k) retirement accounts and the ability of Americans to contribute up to $18,000 into the accounts tax-deferred. But the plan would limit the widely used deduction for mortgage interest to new home loans of $500,000 or less, a sharp reduction from the current $1 million cap.

The plan also would limit the deductibility of local property taxes to $10,000 and eliminate the deduction for state income taxes, which has generated significant opposition from Republicans in high-tax states such as New York and New Jersey.

The tax-writing Ways and Means Committee will work on finalizing the proposal next week, and the GOP’s ambitious timetable to get a bill to Trump by Christmas faces numerous roadblocks. The proposal caused anxiety for some House Republicans and drew criticism from a few in the Senate, which is intent on writing its own bill.

Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., announced his opposition: “We need to fix this.”

The plan would shrink the number of tax brackets from seven to three, with respective rates of 12 percent, 25 percent, 35 percent and 39.6 percent. The tax system would be simplified, and most people would be able to file their returns on a postcard-sized form.

The plan would set a 25 percent tax rate starting at $90,000 for married couples, with a 35 percent rate beginning to bite at $260,000 — which means many upper-income families whose top rate now is 33 percent would face higher taxes. Individuals making $500,000 and couples earning $1 million would face the current Clinton-era top rate of 39.6 percent.

The plan would slash the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent, a demand by Trump. It also would repeal the inheritance taxes on multimillion-dollar estates, a big break for the wealthy.

“There are a lot of people still in our conference who are anxious to see exactly how this plays out with growth in the economy, what the long term deficit and debt situation turns out to be,” said Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark.

Reaction among outside groups was mixed. Tax-cut activist Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax reform said the measure was “long overdue” and offered “great news for taxpayers and those left behind by eight years of slow growth under Obama.” But the National Federation of Independent Business, a GOP-leaning lobby for small business, announced its opposition and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the plan still needs work.

The child tax credit would be increased from $1,000 to $1,600, though the $4,050 per child exemption would be repealed.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted an objection: “House #TaxReform plan is only starting point. But $600 #ChildTaxCredit increase doesn’t achieve our & @potus goal of helping working families.”

The legislation is a longstanding goal for Capitol Hill Republicans who see a once-in-a-generation opportunity to clean up an inefficient, loophole-cluttered tax code.

The plan calls for nearly doubling the standard deduction used by most average Americans to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for families, and increasing the per-child tax credit.

On net, it could mean tax increases for many upper middle-income families.

Republicans and Trump argue that sharply cutting tax rates for businesses would improve U.S. economic competitiveness.

The emerging plan would retain the Clinton-era 39.6 percent income tax rate for the wealthiest earners. But for that highest bracket, the tax writers raised the minimum level of income to $1 million for couples or families from the current $470,000 — a change that would reduce tax revenue.

Democrats have repeatedly complained the plan was too favorable to business and the wealthy, and contradicted Trump’s rhetoric of bringing tax relief and economic benefit to the stressed middle class.

“What we are seeing today is a plan that exacerbates the unfairness and inequality in our tax code,” said top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York. “To pay for all the tax giveaways in their bill, the Republicans are likely to make it worse for the middle class — not help them but hurt them.”