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PODCAST: Travel bans

Fri, 2014-10-17 03:00

It's been a rocky week for investors--One of the worst and most volatile in a while. But markets are up this morning in the U.S. and Europe. More on that. And as two U.S. health care workers who have contracted Ebola continue to receive treatment, several dozen politicians have called for a ban on travel from West African nations stricken by Ebola. Politics aside, there are many Americans who say they'd support some kind of travel ban. But what constitutes a travel ban? And this weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the "National Organ Transplant Act." That created our current organ donation system, and banned the sale of organs. Today, there are more than 120,000 people waiting for a transplant, and that long list has led a bioethicist to call for changes to the law.

Why a travel ban is so tough to pull off

Fri, 2014-10-17 02:30

Calls for banning travel from West African nations stricken by Ebola grew louder this week. Loud enough that during intense questioning Thursday, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had to remind Congress that the CDC doesn’t issue visas.

Politics aside, many Americans support the idea of a travel ban. But what exactly does a travel ban mean?

Aid organizations say it’s crucial that commercial airlines keep flying to West Africa. That’s how volunteer doctors and nurses get there.

“These people are not there for the duration of the epidemic,” says Gilbert Burnham with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He says many stay a month or six weeks, “then they’re likely to rotate out and other people rotate in.”

So is a travel ban a ban on flights, or on people? Logistically, it may seem simple to just cancel incoming flights from Sierra Leone, Guinea or Liberia.

Right now, though, there are no direct flights to the U.S. from those countries, according to John Wagner, with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Transportation policy expert Kenneth Button of George Mason University says it can be harder to track people who fly indirectly, if they purchase different tickets for different legs.

“They could actually buy a separate ticket from Guinea or Sierra Leone to Paris and then have a separate ticket from Paris to the United States,” he says, adding they could lay over for a few days in the middle.

That’s part of the reason some lawmakers want to suspend visas for non-U.S. citizens from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, until the Ebola outbreak is contained.  

Do you think there should be a travel ban on countries most affected by Ebola?

Yes

 

No

    pollcode.com free polls

The push to better reimburse organ donors

Fri, 2014-10-17 02:00

Ever since the National Organ Transplant Act was established 30 years ago this month, ushering in our current organ donation system, it has been enshrined in the law and the medical community in the U.S. that we don’t pay for organ donations. 

But bioethicist Sigrid Fry-Revere is trying to challenge that notion, at least a little. 

Currently, there are 120,000 people waiting for a transplant, while only 8,200 people donated organs between January and July 2014, according to statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services.  Most of those waiting need a kidney transplant, which is one of few organs that can be donated both by the living and the dead. 

So, why aren’t there more kidneys? 

Fry-Revere wondered that while trying to donate a kidney to an ailing friend. She wasn’t able to do so, because she would need six weeks to recover and would need $8,000 to hire someone to tend her Virginia farm, she says. 

“My recipient was wealthy enough to pay $8,000 for a farm-hand, but it was against the law for him to do that,” because that would have seemed like she was getting paid upfront to donate her kidney, says Fry-Revere. 

In the end, her friend died waiting on the transplant list. 

Fry-Revere looked around the world to see if the problem was the same elsewhere. She discovered that it wasn’t in Iran, where there is an established practice of paying for organs, and kidneys are available to everyone who needs a transplant. The benefits and cash payments to donors there can total as much as three times the annual income of a typical Iranian, says Fry-Revere, who authored the book  "The Kidney Sellers: A Journey of Discovery in Iran.” 

Fry-Revere wants to bring a version of that concept to the U.S., by paying people upfront for any expenses they might incur from donating an organ. 

Currently, more than half of organ donations come form people who have died. But very few people die in the right set of conditions to allow for organ harvesting. So, in order to get more organs, you have to increase the number of living donors, says Fry-Revere. But that’s hard to do in the current U.S. system, she says, because of strict guidelines about how donors can be compensated for expenses related to their donation. Namely, donors cannot be paid for expenses before they donate, but can sometimes be compensated for some expenses, such as lost wages, after the fact. 

And that’s a disincentive, Fry-Revere says, because most people can’t afford to spend money first and then wait for reimbursement. 

“We have patients that have trouble coming to clinic because they can’t afford the gas,” says Dr. Stephen Pastan, medical director of kidney and pancreas transplant programs at the Emory Transplant Center in Atlanta, Georgia. "Unfortunately, financial barriers, particularly for socioeconomically disadvantaged people, often play a large role in them not being able to become kidney donors.”

Pastan says a lot of his patients are African-American with socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, and they are disproportionately affected by the lack of donor kidneys. 

There is a National Living Donor Assistance Program, set up to offer some financial reimbursement to donors. But the current system isn’t meeting the need, Pastan says.  

"What I think we should do is do a better job of paying donors’ expenses, and paying them upfront,” Fry-Revere says. 

The details of Fry-Revere’s proposal are to amend current law so that organ donors can get cash upfront in the form of a pre-paid debit card loaded with as much as $14,000. The money would be use to pay for any expenses such as taking time away from work, childcare, and transportation costs. 

"We want to remove any barriers to people who have come forward to be a living donor,” says Troy Zimmerman, head of governmental affairs at the National Kidney Foundation, "But if it has any appearances of having an incentive to donate, that is something that the kidney foundation is very much opposed to.”

But Fry-Revere says there are no ethical dilemmas in her proposal or dangers that the poor might be exploited for their organs by rich patients. 

In trying to shelter the poor from the possibility of exploitation, Fry-Revere says we have actually created a perverse inequality, in which transplant patients with financial means are better off in the living donor program, “because the system does allow recipients to reimburse the donor’s travel, lodging and lost wages. But that assumes a rich recipient." 

Cable eclipsing broadcast for political advertising

Fri, 2014-10-17 02:00

If you live in a state with a close race in this year's midterm elections, you know that candidates are carpet bombing the air waves with TV ads. But candidates and campaigns are increasingly airing their ads over cable instead of their local broadcast station, for a bunch of reasons, some specific to this year.   

“There’s just not a lot of competitive House races," says Ken Goldstein, a professor of political science at the University of San Francisco. "We’re sort of in a dead-ball year, in terms of House races.”

And the House races that are close are in big cities, where it’s not efficient to advertise on local TV. Plus, there aren’t as many competitive races for governor, and those are mostly fought on local airwaves. 

But long-term trends also give cable an edge over local TV.

“Now we can do targeting that we couldn’t do before,” says David Karpf, an assistant professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.  

Karpf says local broadcast TV is broad and scattershot. But cable set-top boxes tell campaigns exactly what voters are watching, so campaigns can tailor their ads.

“So that would allow them to deliver an advertisement to one neighbor, and a different advertisement to a different neighbor, ideally,” he says.

For example, voters in one district might like watching re-runs of old shows like Mork and Mindy. Of course that show is from back in the '80s, before cable started taking political advertising away from local broadcasters.   

Don't be mistaken, local TV still rakes in the most cash. But it’s only grown a little from the last midterms, in 2010.

“Local TV’s heyday is over in that these great gains we saw in local TV ad spending for politics, cycle over cycle—probably slowing and eventually will plateau,” says Elizabeth Wilner, senior vice president for political advertising at Kantar Media.

Spending for political ads on cable this election, meanwhile, is expected to nearly double. 

Silicon Tally: The one where you watch all of Friends

Fri, 2014-10-17 02:00

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by David Albert, co-founder of Hacker School, a retreat for computer programmers in New York City.

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In dry California, using price to police water use

Thu, 2014-10-16 13:37

California’s historic drought is prompting a lot of soul-searching among water utilities looking for ways to make their customers more water-thrifty. Ideally, they’d like to do it without water cops, fines and the dreaded “R” word – rationing. State water regulators are instead encouraging people to consider something called "water budgeting."

Officials at the Irvine Ranch Water District, based in the Orange County suburb of Irvine, say they were the first in the nation to adopt water budgeting. After a severe drought in the late '80s and early '90s, the district was looking for a way to create a water “conservation ethic” among its customers that was fair and also didn't threaten the agency’s long-term financial health (the lower water sales = lower revenue problem). They came up with water budgeting.

Here’s the cheat sheet version: Every household gets a “reasonable” monthly water budget, based on specifics like family size and how big the property is.  In the Irvine district, that’s currently 50 gallons per person per day for indoor water use. Outdoors, it’s enough to maintain a grass lawn, even in a drought. If the customer stays within budget, he or she pays some of the lowest water rates in the county. Go over, they pay more. 

“If you’re wasting water, we’re going to send you a very strong price signal to let you know that you have wasteful use,” says Fiona Sanchez, the district's director of water resources. “It’s designed to get the customer’s attention and think, 'oh whoa, my water bill went from something like $28 to maybe $90.'” 

 In fact, Irvine’s "wasteful" water users can pay up to nine times as much as their very efficient neighbors. Sanchez says since they created water budgeting in 1991,  their customers use half as much water outdoors, and per capita water use is way under the state average. 

But water adviser Tom Ash, who helped create water budgeting, estimates only a dozen water agencies in the entire country charge for water this way. “I think it boils down to the fear of change,” he says. Felicia Marcus, chairman of California’s Water Resources Control Board, says it also takes a lot of time and resources to develop such a system.

Plus, politically, it can be tricky.  Some water boards view it as just a more subtle form of rationing, which they fear ratepayers will reject.  Right now water agencies are closely watching a lawsuit over water budgets in the city of San Juan Capistrano.  A taxpayers' group there contends it violates California Prop 218, a law aimed at tamping down excessive taxes and fees.

Quiz: Complaints about private student loans on the rise

Thu, 2014-10-16 12:42

The number of complaints about private student loans filed with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau climbed 38 percent in the past year, according to a new CFPB report.

Most private student loan complaints sent to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau relate to which of the following?

Chris Hadfield can show you your hometown from space

Thu, 2014-10-16 11:56

Commander Chris Hadfield is arguably the most famous astronaut of the modern era, not just because of his trips to space. He won a massive following using Twitter and Instagram, and even singing David Bowie covers on YouTube.

Now, he's gathered thousands of photographs he took from space, and whittled them down into a book called "You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes."

Here are some highlights from our conversation:

You’ve got more than 1 million Twitter followers. They seem to love what you do. Why do you think that is?

Such a tiny little group of people have had a chance, not just to leave the Earth, but to spend half a year off the Earth. Using the capability of social media, with all those followers, [I was able to say], “Hey, if you’re interested, look what we can see from here. Look how you look. You are here.”

At one point, my son sent a note, he said, “Hey, why don’t you ask everybody what they want to see?”

Everybody said, “I want a picture of my home town.” Which made me laugh, because it’s kind of like narcissistic. But then I thought about it. People are proud of where they’re from but also want to see where I’m from a perspective and in proportion to everyone else. I want to see how I fit in.

Into the void: spacewalk today! Reid & Butch going out to fix a broken shunt. Watch here: http://t.co/UbpGnfUL4E pic.twitter.com/eYp0tv83CT

— Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) October 15, 2014

What’s next for you? Will we see you piloting a commercial space mission?
I know several of the guys flying… Virgin Galactic. It’s a very interesting commercial first step. It goes straight up and falls straight back down, so it really is just the first step. Sir Richard admits that. But he’s looking for ways to apply it. Maybe it can go straight up and land somewhere else. Maybe we could get from New York to LA in 30 minutes or something.

I don’t think I’m going to be the pilot of it. I’ve been a pilot my whole life and I’ve had such a richness of experience. I flew in space three times, and helped build two space stations, and commanded this one that’s up there.

A little taste of a ride like that would be like a Formula 1 driver going for a quick ride in somebody else’s car, but if someone gives me the opportunity, I”ll go for sure. But I don’t think I’m going to be the pilot.

What’s your favorite space movie?
I really like Galaxy Quest. But I also like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Those are my two favorites.

Holiday hiring is a path to permanent jobs, for a few

Thu, 2014-10-16 11:29

This year’s holiday shopping spree will be preceded by a strong holiday hiring spree.

As big-box and online warehouse retailers announce their seasonal employment plans, economists are predicting 2014 will be the best year for holiday jobs since 1999, with more than 800,000 temporary hires in the final three months of the year. Retailers hired 786,200 seasonal workers in 2013, according to the annual forecast published by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Individual companies that serve the holiday trade have more robust hiring plans than last year. UPS has announced it will double its seasonal employment boost to 95,000. Amazon announced Thursday it will add 80,000 temps at fulfillment and sortation centers across the country, as it staffs up an expanding nationwide delivery network.

“Last year, Amazon converted thousands of seasonal employees into regular full-time roles after the holidays,” Amazon spokesperson Nina Lindsey says. “And we’re really excited to be expecting to do the same this year.” Last year, about 15 percent of temps who got holiday work were brought on for full-time, permanent jobs, according to the company’s press release.

Lindsey would not provide an average wage. According to one staffing agency, these jobs appear to offer above the minimum wage, in the $11 to $15 per hour range.

“In this kind of economy, with this lack of safety net, any job is often better than no job,” says Stephanie Luce, professor of labor studies at the City University of New York. But she also pointed out that many job-seekers are underemployed in this economy — working temporary or part-time jobs and wanting full-time permanent work.

“You’re taking this job — it might even be your second job or third job — but you’re just trying to patch together many temp jobs, seasonal jobs, part-time jobs to make a living,” Luce says. “And it’s not really not a sustainable model.”

Georgetown University public policy professor Harry Holzer, who served as chief economist in the Labor Department during the Clinton Administration, said many of these jobs don’t deliver a significant long-term benefit to job-seekers.

“If the job is really short-term, I doubt that anyone’s going to be impressed by it when they look at someone’s work experience,” said Holzer. “If it’s a little longer, and if you can argue that you picked up a skill on the job, then potentially it could have a positive effect.”

Holzer said that during the 1990s, when the U.S. had full employment, most people taking temporary seasonal jobs for the holidays probably wanted to work short-term to make extra money—either because they were semi-retired, or simply didn't want year-round work. Now, he said, temporary seasonal workers are more likely to be people struggling with unemployment or underemployment.

Bono apologizes for free iTunes album

Thu, 2014-10-16 11:28

Bono has apologized for a recent self-promotion stint, albeit in a video promoting his new album release on CD and vinyl.

The U2 frontman apologized to everyone who was annoyed after the band's new album "Songs of Innocence" just showed up in their iTunes accounts last month.  All 500 million iTunes users received the free download.

In a Facebook video posted Oct. 14, Bono said he got carried away with the "beautiful idea" of the auto-download, but artists are "prone to a drop of megalomania" and he feared the album wouldn't be heard.

The download was announced Sept. 9 at the Apple event unveiling the iPhone 6, 6 Plus and Apple Watch. Apple automatically sent the album for free to active iTunes accounts, and for some people with certain settings, that meant an automatic download too.

Billboard reported last week the album had been downloaded 26 million times, and 81 million people had listened to at least one song — it's not clear how many actually meant to.

Why the Ebola patients were transferred

Thu, 2014-10-16 11:21

Health officials transferred Dallas nurse Nina Pham to the National Institutes of Health facility in Maryland Thursday.

Now both Dallas nurses infected by a patient with the disease have been sent to specialty hospitals with biocontainment units. There are four such hospitals in the U.S., with sites in Maryland, Georgia, Nebraska and Montana.

Given mistakes in Dallas, health officials are talking about whether certain hospitals should be designated to treat Ebola cases. But there really aren’t any Ebola experts, no super doctors who have special tricks. Doctors say treating Ebola is actually pretty straightforward business.

“Most of the treatment issues really are the generic treatment of very, very sick people with multiple organs that are failing, and most reasonable-sized hospitals can do that competently,” says Dr. Bob Wachter of University of California-San Francisco.

Wachter says with Ebola, what matters more than medical brilliance is organizational acumen, where everyone from the hospital CEO to the top nurse to the waste hauler knows how to handle something this infectious.

“That’s really, really hard, and I don’t think every single hospital will be able to sort that out,” he says.

The events over the past week in Dallas drive that home, but what’s happened there shouldn’t come as a shock. Remember, estimates suggest nearly 100,000 people die from hospital acquired infections every year. Mistakes in hospitals happen; they’re expected. With the danger of Ebola there’s increasing talk in the healthcare world that these cases should go top hospitals.

But Dr. Ricardo Martinez, who oversaw EMS efforts for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, says every hospital needs to be better prepared.

“There are other diseases coming, so we should be able to provide some level of protection that not only care for the patient but contain the spread,” he says.

Martinez says if Doctors without Borders can protect many of its workers in field-like settings, U.S. hospitals should be able to do the same.

How stock market volatility could impact the economy

Thu, 2014-10-16 11:13

The stock market jitters of the last week have numerous causes: ebola panic, Europe's economic slump, the settling in of weak economic growth and the imminent end of the Fed's bond-buying program. 

The effects, beyond temporary shifts in stock prices, are less evident. But stock market volatility can have a real-world impact.

"In research I've looked at 19 previous stock market jitters in the U.S.," says Nicholas Bloom, professor of economics at Stanford University. "These are normally followed by nasty contractions.  And the reason is reasonably easy to see."

Bloom says that volatility can lead to uncertainty, and when  individuals and businesses are uncertain about the future, they put off big purchases.

"So, for example, firm investment tends to drop very heavily. If you look at consumers you see it’s consumer durables that drops a lot. So things like new cars, furniture, clothing," he says.

And a lack of investment, whether it's by companies or consumers, has a real effect on the economy.  But before you lock up your credit cards, Bloom says the volatility we’ve seen this week is all smoke and no fire--so far. 

First, consider stock prices.

"I think at this point, if, say, we were lucky and things stopped today, didn’t get any worse, probably not too big of an impact," says Russ Kinnel, director of mutual fund research for Morningstar. 

 Kinnel says shares have lost--at most--the gains from one year of a five year rally.

 Then consider the stock volatility. One common measurement is the VIX.

"It’s risen by about 50 percent over the last week," says Bloom. "Historically big jumps that I’ve examined have a VIX increase of more than 100 percent.  They also lasted around a month."

In other words, if the current volatility doesn't last, its effects shouldn't linger either.

"After it’s out of the news, you know, people’s perceptions and sentiment tend to shift back," says Gary Thayer, macro strategist at Wells Fargo. "And that’s I think what we’re likely to see here."

 

 

Advertisers can now tell if we're paying attention

Thu, 2014-10-16 11:12

Online advertising has long been dominated by the click and impression — how much an ad is shown to users. Now the industry is establishing a new metric: our attention.

People click on the average Internet display ad about .1 percent of the time. It's a dismal fraction for advertisers, and it doesn't tell the full story. Ads can have a large branding impact on us even if we don't click on them. That's why advertisers need metrics that deliver a more nuanced picture, says Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile.

His company is the first to have its techniques for quantifying attention certified by the Media Ratings Council, an organization that determines if an audience measurement tool is “valid, reliable, and effective.”  For years, Chartbeat has been measuring attention for web content — trying to determine if we are really engaging with websites, or just happen to have the tab open while watching a cat video elsewhere. The company is now taking the tools it built for content and applying them to advertising.

To analyze our engagement, Chartbeat measures things like how we move the mouse, scroll, and tap on our keyboards. “All of those signals effectively allow us to get a picture of behavior,” Haile says, “it gives us a sense of when attention is happening or when someone is distracted.”

Chartbeat's content analytics have been especially popular with news organizations. They use it and other services to see what articles engage readers. You might recognize a few of Chartbeat's clients: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN. Now, some are starting to use it for ads as well.

Jon Slade directs digital advertising for the Financial Times. With attention metrics, he says, “I'm able to value engagement and commercialize it.” That helps the site compete against websites with a larger volume of content that people interact with more superficially.  The metrics are changing how the Financial Timessells ads. Advertisers can now pay for how long people will see and engage with an ad instead of how many times it will be shown and clicked on. It's quality over quantity, Slade says — a huge shift for online advertising, and a better business model for those who create content.

This shift in the advertising industry could be a big boost for news sites. In the words of Trevor Fellows, “the recognition that not all impressions are equal is huge.”

Fellows is the chief revenue officer for The Wall Street Journal. He says attention metrics will show advertisers it's worth paying to have ads displayed next to engaging content. It's a way for news sites to stand out from the soup that is the Internet.

Fellows predicts it will be a while before engagement becomes a standard measurement in the advertising industry. “A change of this magnitude is going to be a long time in becoming commonplace,” he says.  Advertisers still quibble over the old metrics—how to determine whether an ad has actually been viewed and intentionally clicked.When it comes to human attention there's more going on than just the push of a button.

The numbers for October 16, 2014

Thu, 2014-10-16 07:05

Apple unveiled the iPad Mini 3 and the iPad Air 2 at a big media event Thursday, though the basics of the new tablets were already leaked by Apple itself. IPad sales have been falling or staying flat for the past several quarters, as the market gets more crowded and iPhones get more popular (and larger).

Quartz has a good look at Apple's iPad conundrum and some suggestions for giving the device a more distinct place in their product line.

Here's what we're reading — and some numbers we're watching — Thursday.

1 in 4

The portion of millennials who have cut the cord or never had a cable subscription at all, TechHive reported. That's especially important as HBO and now CBS have announced they'll uncouple streaming from pay TV packages, and offering their online-only services.

300

The number of companies that signed a pledge earlier this year to reduce hiring barriers for the 3 million job seekers who have been unemployed 27 weeks or longer. It's why some companies are exploring with getting rid of resumes, and opting instead for video applications.

72 percent

That's how many Airbnb listings in New York violate zoning or other laws, according to a new report from the city's attorney general. The start-up, valued at $10 billion, blamed a lack of clear laws for home sharing,  the New York Times reported. Nearly all of the rentals are in Manhattan, and many are from individual hosts with a high number of listings: Six percent of renters take in 37 percent of Airbnb revenue in the city, which amounts to about $168 million.

PODCAST: Here's my video resume

Thu, 2014-10-16 03:00

First up, the Fed released new data on industrial production this morning. How will the markets react? Plus, Americans who've been out of work for months face an uphill battle getting hired. That's why 300 companies signed a White House pledge earlier this year to bring down some of the barriers faced by the long-term unemployed in this country. One company's approach is to forget resumes and turn to videos. And Mexico's been trying to attract foreign investment to help boost its economy, but the country's facing challenges. Corruption is big one. Violence is another. More on that.

A push to hire the long-term unemployed

Thu, 2014-10-16 02:00

People who’ve been out of work for months often face an uphill battle getting hired. That’s why some 300 companies signed a White House pledge earlier this year to reduce hiring barriers for the three million job seekers who’ve been out of work 27 weeks or longer.

One company’s approach: Forget resumes; turn to videos.

Frontier Communications Corp. sells things like high speed internet and phone service. The company realized that resumes can’t always predict who’ll be good at selling its triple play packages. Jim Oddo was looking for soft skills.

Like the ability to delight the customer,” says Oddo, senior vice president of human resources. “How do you read that on a resume?”

So this year, Frontier has been moving from a resume-first hiring model to a video-first model. To do so, the company teamed up with a group called HireVue. As the system rolled out, applicants started answering a few questions on videos they could submit from their smartphones.

“So the very first evaluation that we would have of someone is how they communicated," Oddo says. "And then we would look at their resume."

Frontier’s needs dovetailed with the Obama Administration’s push to decrease employment barriers for the long-term unemployed. Oddo says Frontier hired more unemployed people this year, half of whom were long-term unemployed.

The White House is touting this strategy and others.

Mitchell Hirsch with the National Employment Law Project says otherwise qualified jobless applicants are sometimes rejected by automatic filters.

“So they’re being unfairly screened out,” he says. “Often without the direct knowledge of the hiring managers themselves.”

A new guide to hiring the long-term unemployed recommends removing those filters. 

For homebuilders, things are looking up...just a bit

Thu, 2014-10-16 02:00

The latest figures on builder confidence are out today. Tomorrow, the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report on housing starts and permits for September 2014 will be released. The consensus among economists is for a rise in both measures of homebuilding, compared to August figures.

Confidence among homebuilders is gradually improving, as unemployment falls and job creation has strengthened since the end of the recession, says David Crowe, chief economist at the National Association of Home Builders. Still, housing starts have only recovered to about half the level of the mid-2000s, before the housing crash.

From 2004 through early 2006, housing starts consistently numbered 2 million annually. So far in 2014, Crowe says, housing starts have bounced back and forth around the 1 million mark. Nonetheless, that’s a major improvement on construction levels at the depths of the recession, when housing starts fell below the 500,000 annual level.

“It’s pretty good now, from where we’ve been,” says Crowe of the current state of homebuilding.

Crowe points to several factors that are still holding back home construction. He points out that builders—those who are left in business after a severe winnowing of the industry following the housing crash—have a hard time securing financing, due to tight lending standards. They are also having trouble finding skilled construction workers, since so many left the field during the recession. Finally, land that has been prepared for development is scarce in many markets around the country.

Economist Stephanie Karol at IHS points out that the real estate market is still digesting a decade-old oversupply of new homes. “We saw a lot of overbuilding leading up to the crash,” says Karol. “There’s less of an incentive to add to the housing stock, especially when household formation is below expectations.” Young people have been delaying marriage, and eschewing major financial commitments, like getting a mortgage, since the recession hit. Many also face high levels of student loan debt.

David Crowe says the hottest sectors of the residential construction market right now are ‘move-up’ homes (in the $300,000-plus range) for those who already own, as well as multi-family housing, which has fully rebounded since the recession.

First-time homebuyers looking for new homes in the $125,000-$150,000 price range are having a harder time, he says.

“We have very tough lending standards,” says Crowe. “So even for people ready to buy, if they have the least ding on their credit, it gets more difficult.”

The value of voicemail

Thu, 2014-10-16 02:00

Text messages, e-mails, missed phone calls, "Yo's — it's easier than ever to let someone know you want to get a hold of them. In many ways, the voicemail is a relic in the eyes of millennials and those younger, but a staple of etiquette for Gen X'ers and older.

This was the precise problem that Leslie Horn ran into with her mother. She just wouldn't stop leaving voicemails.

But then something happened that made her change the way she viewed the end of unanswered phone calls forever: her father passed away.

Upon the passing of her father, Horn's phone rang for months. Many of them ended at the machine.

It was here that she realized a few things about these messages. People often ended up saying more than they do in an actual conversation (in an endearing way), it's nice to hear a voice other than your own sometimes, and that there was a special place reserved for all the messages people left her throughout the years waiting in storage.

Old friends with stories, the occasional ramblings of a drunk dial, and one very special message for her birthday last year: A voicemail from her dad.

Priscilla Chan on why she gave $25 million to fight Ebola

Thu, 2014-10-16 02:00

Why people donate is a mystery. And when it comes to giving money to help contain the spread of Ebola, charitable giving has been modest. This week, Priscilla Chan and her husband Mark Zuckerberg — the co-founder of Facebook —  donated $25 million to help fight Ebola.

In an interview with Marketplace, Chan explains why one of the most prominent couples in the United States decided to donate millions to the cause — and what they hope they get for that money.

Thinking like a doctor

The gift — which Zuckerberg of course announced on Facebook — will go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with the idea that it will filter through to many different organizations on the ground.

Chan, who works as a doctor, explains her rationale this way: "As a pediatrician, [my] training is in preventing disease and keeping children healthy. And so we take advantage of — and are appreciative of — the massive vaccine program in our country to help prevent the spread of a more serious epidemic, of anything ranging from...flu to measles...and what I see as cases of devastating illness that would otherwise be preventable...I understand how important it is to act now to keep Ebola from being a massive problem that affects the lives of many, and the importance of prevention and early intervention."

What they're worried about

Ebola is, at present, a disease without a cure

"Right now we don't have an effective vaccine program...Not acting now might lead this to be a more pervasive illness that's harder to control later down the line,"Chan says. "The examples Mark brings up are diseases like HIV, Polio...infectious diseases that are so difficult for us to control, or in Polio's case, eradicate. But we have an opportunity now to act quickly and to really change the direction and growth of Ebola."

A larger donation than originally planned

Chan and Zuckerberg had been contemplating a donation for a couple of weeks, she said. Then, Zuckerberg took a trip to India. After seeing the lack of public health resources in the country's poor and rural communities first-hand, Zuckerberg called Chan and suggested they make a larger gift than they had previously been considering (Chan declined to say how much they increased the donation by).

How did she react?

"We definitely had to think about it as a couple, if this was something we really wanted to commit to...the need to respond has always been a no-brainer, the thing that changed with Mark's visit, and seeing the disparity in resources," she said. "[We decided] that we need to act now and make a larger gift, to be able to keep Ebola to a confined state, where we can aggressively intervene, rather than have it evolve into something that ends up having to be costly and linger in our worldwide community for decades."

Click the media player above for audio.

Quiz: How much is a work-study job worth?

Wed, 2014-10-15 14:38

More than 700,000 higher-ed students get federal work-study funds.

What is the average annual pay for a work-study job?

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