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MOOC 2.0: Free online education moves forward

Tue, 2014-03-25 10:32

There are some new developments this week in the land of the MOOC. That’s shorthand for the "Massive Open Online Courses" that were supposed to transform higher education as we know it, bringing free education from the likes of Harvard and Stanford to you and me.

MOOC pioneer Coursera has hired a new CEO -- none other than the former long-time president of Yale University, Richard Levin. Meanwhile competitor edX has a new president from the business world, former Vistaprint executive Wendy Cebula. The hires mark a new phase in the evolution of free online education as it tries to move beyond the initial hype--and the inevitable backlash.

Outsourcing the NSA's phone-call database

Tue, 2014-03-25 10:28

The Obama administration has outlined a plan to replace the National Security Agency's bulk collection of phone data, the New York Times reports. Instead of maintaining its own five-year record of all phone calls, the NSA would ask a court for individual sets of records, and then get those records from the phone companies. The House Intelligence Committee has a similar recommendation.  

Which raises the question of what new burdens these rules would place on telecom companies.

The short answer:  Not much. Under the proposals we’ve heard about, the telecom companies would be required to keep 18 months of data. Which happens to be what they keep already.

This would be a level of intrusiveness we should all be used to, says James Lewis, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The phone companies collect this information no matter what, right? It’s your phone bill," he says. "And the NSA—or any other federal agency—can always get it with a court order."

As the 2005 revelation of warrantless wiretapping highlighted, phone companies have generally turned over whatever data the government asks for. So they won’t need to set up new systems for responding to NSA requests.

"They already have offices that process these court orders," says Lewis. "So now these offices will have one more request to process."

Volume should be no problem. NSA officials say they searched their own database a total of 288 times in 2012. And looked at fewer than 6,000 phone numbers

Steven Bradbury, who was a justice department lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, would prefer to see the NSA have access to all five years of records.

However, he says asking the phone companies to hang onto it just wasn’t a practical idea.

"They don’t want to do that, they don’t have a need to do that for their own businesses, and they don’t have the capacity to do it," he says. "That would, as a practical matter, result in a contractor keeping the data."

He thinks security could be an issue. Companies like Target have suffered well-publicized data breaches recently.  

And federal IT contracting has gotten a bad rep after the botched rollout of healthcare.gov

However, Bradbury is thinking of another example: "Remember, too, that Edward Snowden was an employee of an outside contractor," he says.  

Does Obama just want to outsource the NSA's phone-call database?

Tue, 2014-03-25 10:28

The Obama administration has outlined a plan to replace the National Security Agency's bulk collection of phone data, the New York Times reports. Instead of maintaining its own five-year record of all phone calls, the NSA would ask a court for individual sets of records, and then get those records from the phone companies. The House Intelligence Committee has a similar recommendation.  

Which raises the question of what new burdens these rules would place on telecom companies.

The short answer:  Not much. Under the proposals we’ve heard about, the telecom companies would be required to keep 18 months of data. Which happens to be what they keep already.

This would be a level of intrusiveness we should all be used to, says James Lewis, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The phone companies collect this information no matter what, right? It’s your phone bill," he says. "And the NSA—or any other federal agency—can always get it with a court order."

As the 2005 revelation of warrantless wiretapping highlighted, phone companies have generally turned over whatever data the government asks for. So they won’t need to set up new systems for responding to NSA requests.

"They already have offices that process these court orders," says Lewis. "So now these offices will have one more request to process."

Volume should be no problem. NSA officials say they searched their own database a total of 288 times in 2012. And looked at fewer than 6,000 phone numbers

Steven Bradbury, who was a justice department lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, would prefer to see the NSA have access to all five years of records.

However, he says asking the phone companies to hang onto it just wasn’t a practical idea.

"They don’t want to do that, they don’t have a need to do that for their own businesses, and they don’t have the capacity to do it," he says. "That would, as a practical matter, result in a contractor keeping the data."

He thinks security could be an issue. Companies like Target have suffered well-publicized data breaches recently.  

And federal IT contracting has gotten a bad rep after the botched rollout of healthcare.gov

However, Bradbury is thinking of another example: "Remember, too, that Edward Snowden was an employee of an outside contractor," he says.  

The D.I.Y. career

Tue, 2014-03-25 10:09

The photos spread out on a coffee table tell the story of a career. In one, a woman wears a fairy costume and rides a flying horse. In another, the woman lounges on a desert rock at sunrise, in a gold bikini draped with red silk. In a third, she wears an Uncle Sam outfit and poses on three-foot stilts.

These are photos of Heather Burdette, a Las Vegas entertainer, at work.

Not on the table are audition reels from Ms. Burdette’s other career, one in which corporations pay her $500 to $1,000 a day to present their products, including tires and cybersecurity products, at trade shows. It is work for which she wears business attire instead of hot pants. These jobs are lucrative but infrequent.

The overlapping careers have this in common: The work is temporary, one freelance job after another. Ms. Burdette is among the millions of Americans who piece together a living. Freelancers, the self-employed, temporaries — all know the current job will end and they need to keep looking for the next one. Increasingly, even many people with full-time jobs feel insecurity about their work.

Ms. Burdette knows the trajectory of insecurity. She has worked in Las Vegas as an entertainer since 1996, sometimes in jobs that quickly disappeared.

Right now, she is busy. A freelancer since 2008, she works with 30 agents. Some help her book conventions. Others set her up with entertainment jobs. In addition to her presenting, this year she has worked as an astrologer and stilt-walker, and she helped dress fashion models at a mall. She is fortunate to live in a city with huge entertainment and convention industries that rely on temporary workers. "It’s the land of opportunity," she said.

But as Ms. Burdette gets older, she has no choice but to consider new ways to earn a paycheck. In both of her careers, looks matter. At 43, she knows she cannot do these jobs indefinitely.

"I’m really proud of the moments and the things these represent," she said, touching the photos on her coffee table. One is a profile of her, not in costume, with the words "Remember who you are  and always keep growing." This is to inspire her, to encourage her to work on the skills she will need for whatever work will come next.

"Whether that means getting a 9-to-5 job and putting on the big-girl pants," she said, "or whether it just means going into something where people are not looking at me, and I’m not covered in rhinestones every day."

How many people have temporary work is hard to say. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 14 million people were self-employed last month, including freelancers like Ms. Burdette.

 At Haunted Harvest, a Halloween-themed event at Springs Preserve in Las Vegas, Heather Burdette painted the face of Aaron J. Tillman. (Photo: Isaac Brekken/The New York Times).

There has been no official count of insecure workers in years. In 2006, the Government Accountability Office estimated that about 30 percent of the work force was "contingent," including those with temporary and part-time jobs.

The number of people paid by temp agencies like Manpower has grown 46 percent since 2009, according to Labor Bureau data. "The staffing industry has added more jobs than any other sector since the end of the recession," said Erin Hatton, a sociology professor at the University at Buffalo and the author of "The Temp Economy."

There are contingent office workers and factory workers. There are contingent computer programmers and corporate executives.

"We know that temps are everywhere," Professor Hatton said.

Starting with the recession, employers have slashed costs, and a major way to do that has been to lower labor costs. Temporary workers often are paid less than regular employees. Under the Affordable Care Act, companies can avoid health insurance costs by hiring part-time workers (who may qualify for subsidized insurance).

"What we call contingent workers is really hard to define, because to some extent we’re all contingent now," said Arne Kalleberg, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of "Good Jobs, Bad Jobs."

"Work has become much more insecure, much more precarious," he said. "So everybody is a temporary in one sense, because their levels of job security have really decreased in recent years."

The trick with insecure work, for the worker, is that the next paycheck is unpredictable. For low-income factory temps, being chosen for work can mean the difference between making rent or not making rent, eating well or not eating well. For freelancers like Ms. Burdette, the lack of security can make it hard to buy a house or plan for the future. What if a job comes up? What if it doesn’t?

Ms. Burdette is familiar with financial insecurity. She declared bankruptcy in 2005. When she married in 2008, she brought to the marriage a few thousand dollars in credit card debt.

She and her husband, Jozef Bobula, met in January and married in May. They were in love, she said, but he also needed a green card for immigration reasons. He’s from Slovakia.

Mr. Bobula, 37, is a bass guitarist. He, too, pieces together work in Las Vegas, and is playing a regular gig at the Stratosphere casino. He also has a jazz trio and a duo, plays solo and teaches music.

Part of what attracted Ms. Burdette to Mr. Bobula was his ability to manage money. "He is accustomed to saving first and spending second," she said.

Today, her credit card debt is paid off. Her 2000 Nissan Xterra is paid for. She says the last four years have been her first without debt since she was 18.

Ms. Burdette calls her financial situation stable right now. She and her husband, combined, make $55,000 to $75,000 a year. Their apartment is cozy, but comfortable. Ms. Burdette calls the style "Craigslist chic," because she bought most of her furniture on the resale website. The most valuable things in their apartment are her husband’s guitars.

The couple do not have retirement savings, but they do have an emergency fund and are considering investing a portion of it in the stock market. Her husband had the savings account when they married, and they only recently added her name to it. They waited, she said, because they wanted to see if the marriage would last.

"To have my name on it," she said, "it brought still another level of peace and comfort that I didn’t think could even have existed."

"I can say no to gigs I don’t want to do,” she said. "I can be more discerning. I don’t have to stand around in a showgirl costume if I’m not feeling physically up to it in terms of my appearance."

Ms. Burdette wants to find a new set of gigs in which people are not looking at her quite as closely. She has explored voice-over work, recording audiobooks. She has considered doing more with her astrology experience.

She would consider a full-time job, but as a last choice. She said her parents spent years planning and worrying and stressed about the future. "It didn’t get them any more secure than me," she said. "I’m actually more secure right now, because I understand that the bottom can fall out at any time."

 Ms. Burdette at a construction trade show in Las Vegas. (Photo: Jozef Bobula/The New York Times)

One of her old business cards said, "Whaddya need?" Her current card says, "singularly multitalented."

Under the new health law, which includes a mandate to buy insurance or face a penalty, Ms. Burdette has coverage for the first time in years. "It does provide people with a cushion," Professor Kalleberg said, "so that they can search, so that they can look for opportunities."

Now, Ms. Burdette has to figure out what those opportunities will be. Reinvention is a word heard a lot in today’s labor market. Jobs keep changing. People have to change to keep up, especially people without employers that provide training.

But many temporary and self-employed workers do not have the money or time to reinvent themselves and their skills. Even if they do, it is not clear which jobs will be available. "The path ahead is not going to be laid out for you," Professor Kalleberg said.

Work in America: Our special series in partnership with the New York Times looking at how the improvements in technology, combined with companies’ increased ability to outsource, have conspired to make radical changes to work in America. 

 

The advice to reinvent is "easy to say, sitting in a job that has a fairly clear career path like I do," he said. "But it’s a difficult situation and it’s stressful."

Figuring out what’s next may be a little easier for Ms. Burdette. She has been doing just that for years.

"I don’t know what it’s like not to reinvent," she said, "I’m just used to that."

Announce your Amazon Kindle e-book credits online

Tue, 2014-03-25 07:58

A few lucky Amazon Kindle users are getting extra-buying credits starting on Tuesday, thanks to a $166 million settlement (of this Apple e-book price fixing case) which returns a portion of money spent to customers who purchased e-books by one or more of five publishers.

"Illegal actions by these publishers forced consumers in New York and across the nation to pay artificially inflated prices for e-books," New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman said in a statement.

The settlements come individually as credits to Kindle users via their Amazon accounts, in the following amounts (heads up, Minnesota – you’ve got your own payout table, because your state reached a separate settlement):


via Amazon

According to this Amazon table, if you're a Minnesotan who purchased one New York Times bestseller and one "other" e-book on your Amazon Kindle, your credit would total $4.87. That is, if you didn’t opt-out of the settlement prior to October 21, 2013. 

For a sum as large as $166 million, you might think hundreds of people would have already taken to the web to celebrate their hard-won (well, not exactly) rewards. A survey of tweets relating to “Amazon” “Kindle” “ebook” (with and without a hyphen) and “settlement” keywords show the total (including two Marketplace employees who reported credits) rings up to (drum roll please)…

…about $911.62.

RebelMouse helped Marketplace to create a custom collection of winnings as they are tweeted: rebelmouse.com/ebooksettlementAdd up the math yourself as the tweets continue and tell us what you come up with. 

At this rate, how long will it take to sum up to $166 million dollars? Not everyone will tweet about their new earnings, and in fact, most people won't based on what we know of active Twitter users.

Still, $166 million passed out in increments of $0.73 is a lot of change at the bottom of a lot of e-purses.

Left in the dust by kale

Tue, 2014-03-25 07:21

From the Marketplace Datebook, here’s a look at what’s coming up Wednesday:

  • In Washington, the Commerce Department reports on durable goods orders for February.
  • The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee holds a hearing titled, "Protecting Personal Consumer Information from Cyber Attacks and Data Breaches."
  • Sandra Day O'Connor turns 84. She was the first woman justice to serve on the Supreme Court.
  • Who is playing Lollapalooza this summer in Chicago? The lineup is scheduled to be announced.
  • And you know how we like to talk about food here at Datebook headquarters. March 26 is National Spinach Day. You remember the superfood spinach? You loved it before kale began its quiet, seemingly aloof advance on the farmers' markets only to invade your home with its leafy green hipness. That band you love? Kale was listening to it before it was cool. Vegetables like that need to be chopped.

 

 

 

 

 

 

PODCAST: Disney gets into viral videos

Tue, 2014-03-25 07:02

When policymakers at the Fed see a certain amount of inflation, it's going to start raising interest rates. Just what the trigger looks like, is still a matter of debate, even after the Federal Reserve chair tried to explain it last week.  At the moment, there's little inflation, but is that really true?

Meanwhile, The Walt Disney company will pay $500 million for viral video production company Maker Studios, and is willing to add $450 million more to the deal if Maker meets performance goals. Fueled by a subscriber base of some 380 million people, Maker's content gets more than 5 billion views per month. Disney may excel at producing big-budget blockbusters, but Maker Studios is producing what kids and teens increasingly want: short-form videos they can watch on their cellphones.

And, Millennials -- American teens, twenty- and thirty-somethings born after 1980 -- have inherited one of the toughest economic environments in years. Yet, according to new data from Pew, they may be one of the most economically optimistic generations ever. Alicia Menendez, reporter and anchor for Fusion TV, joins Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio to discuss what's behind the apparent paradox. 

 

How to unsend an email

Tue, 2014-03-25 06:36

Is there anything more horrific in these modern times than an erroneous reply all, an in-progress draft that gets sent, or a mistaken cc:? The answer is yes, there are many things that are much worse. However, nothing is quite as embarrassing.

Consider the case of Ben Sherwood, the newly-announced president of the Disney/ABC Television Group. Back in 2004, when Sherwood was executive producer of Good Morning America, he sent an encouraging holiday email to his employees lauding them for their work. Unfortunate for him, he also attached the editorial comments from his wife from when he was drafting the email.

A pretty harmless mistake, unless you count the use of "doll"as harmful to one's image. Some of you would. But an email that gets sent to the masses when it was intended for only one recipient can also be a motivator. Take Bill Cochran, for example. A creative director for ad agency Richards Group, he successfully pitched a Super Bowl commercial to Bridgestone Tires in 2010, and was looking to repeat his success in 2011. When an email from his boss jokingly pitted employees against each other for landing a successful Bridgestone pitch, Cochran meant to reply to just his art director with a derisive email about his fellow competitors.

Instead, he emailed his trash talking response to the entire company. Cue panic. After being thoroughly embarassed, Cochran turned the experience into his ad pitch. It went on to become the 2011 Bridgestone Superbowl commercial. 

In fact, a lot of humor can come out of a mistaken email chain. When Hollywood producer Nathane Kahane moved offices, his assistant sent an email notifying the A-list clients in Kahane's list of contacts. His mistake was in cc-ing the recipients instead of bcc-ing. Huge celebrities like Judd Apatow and Warren Beatty were treated to an email chain comprised of humorous reply-alls from people thoroughly enjoying the mistake, with Apatow leading the way.

Here's the thing. We're all familiar with the pitfalls of email, so there's a certain amount of forgiveness when a co-worker accidentally loops everyone in on their private business. In some instances, it even leads to a Super Bowl campaign. Mostly, though, it's just embarassing. So do yourself a favor. If Google's Gmail is your preferred messaging medium, check out the slideshow above to turn on the "unsend" feature. 

Disney buys Maker Studios for $500 million

Tue, 2014-03-25 06:10

The Walt Disney company will pay $500 million for Maker Studios, and is willing to add $450 million more to the deal if Maker meets performance goals. 

Fueled by a subscriber base of some 380 million people, Maker's content gets more than 5 billion views per month. 

Disney may excel at producing big-budget blockbusters, but Maker Studios is producing what kids and teens increasingly want: short-form videos they can watch on their cellphones.

And since young people are flocking to YouTube productions, so are advertisers. Brad Adgate, a Senior Vice President of Research at Horizon Media says forecasters predict sales of $5.7 billion in online advertising this year.

Adgate says it is unclear whether Maker Studios will be expected to fall in line with the family-friendly Disney brand and focus on PG-rated content, or whether Disney is willing to spice things up a bit for the sake of the particular demographic, among whom, Maker's content reigns supreme: teenagers. 

Disney buys Maker Studios for $500 million

Tue, 2014-03-25 06:10

The Walt Disney company will pay $500 million for Maker Studios, and is willing to add $450 million more to the deal if Maker meets performance goals. 

Fueled by a subscriber base of some 380 million people, Maker's content gets more than 5 billion views per month. 

Disney may excel at producing big-budget blockbusters, but Maker Studios is producing what kids and teens increasingly want: short-form videos they can watch on their cellphones.

And since young people are flocking to YouTube productions, so are advertisers. Brad Adgate, a Senior Vice President of Research at Horizon Media says forecasters predict sales of $5.7 billion in online advertising this year.

Adgate says it is unclear whether Maker Studios will be expected to fall in line with the family-friendly Disney brand and focus on PG-rated content, or whether Disney is willing to spice things up a bit for the sake of the particular demographic, among whom, Maker's content reigns supreme: teenagers. 

Survival of the fittest millennial

Tue, 2014-03-25 01:00

Millennials -- American teens, twenty- and thirty-somethings born after 1980 -- have inherited one of the toughest economic environments in years. Yet, according to new data from Pew, they may be one of the most economically optimistic generations ever.

Alicia Menendez, reporter and anchor for Fusion TV, joins Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio to discuss what's behind the apparent paradox. 

For plumbers, it’s all about the sweet smell of money

Tue, 2014-03-25 01:00

While working underneath a house, Joseph Rosenblum, a plumber in training in northwest Arkansas, confronted a skunk and discovered a talent that he previously hadn’t been aware of: crawling very quickly.

"At least its tail wasn’t facing me," he recalled. "I had a little bit of a chance to get out of there before I got sprayed."

Smelly creatures, sewage baths and late-night emergency calls to fix broken pipes are all part of the mix in Mr. Rosenblum’s chosen line of work.

But the potential to earn a good living, doing a job he finds rewarding, outweighs the drawbacks, Mr. Rosenblum, 34, said. He figures that if he works hard, he can earn from $50,000 to $70,000 a year or even more, once he is fully licensed.

"I know plumbers that make $80,000, $90,000 a year," he said in a recent interview, after spending an afternoon clearing a clogged drain at a local restaurant.

Turns out there may be something to the advice your meddling uncle gave you at your high school graduation, about skipping college and becoming a plumber instead.

Plumbers and the related trades of pipe fitters and steamfitters, who often work in commercial and industrial settings, earned median pay of about $49,000 a year nationally, well above the $35,000 average for all occupations, according to 2012 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The top 10 percent earn more than $84,000 a year. The average in big markets like Chicago and New York is about $70,000. (One caveat: The statistics are gathered from employers subject to paying unemployment insurance, so they don’t include the roughly 11 percent of plumbers who are self-employed.)

Demand for plumbers and fitters is strong. The number employed is expected to grow 21 percent by 2022, versus 11 percent across all occupations, according to Labor Bureau statistics. Mr. Rosenblum also reasons that plumbers have a fair degree of job security: "No matter how technologically advanced the world gets, plumbing is going to be kind of a basic necessity," he said.

Even former Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, a billionaire who knows a few things about making money, told listeners to his weekly radio show last spring that working as a plumber makes more financial sense for some students than attending an elite, four-year college: "Being a plumber, actually for the average person, probably would be a better deal, because you don’t spend four years spending $40, 50 thousand tuition, and no income," he said.

While they needn’t have a college degree, most plumbers must undergo years of training to become fully licensed. Requirements vary by state, but prospective plumbers typically spend four to five years as paid apprentices, while also taking classroom instruction in skills like reading blueprints. Then they must pass an exam to obtain a license. Apprentices typically must be at least 18 and have a high school diploma, or the equivalent, to begin training. They also must have a decent grasp of math, especially if they’re working on new construction; they may need to calculate, for instance, the volume of liquids that certain pipes can carry and correctly measure the length of pipe needed for a job.

In some cases — like Mr. Rosenblum’s — the company that hires a prospective plumber sponsors the classroom training. Alternatively, trainees may join the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing & Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States, Canada and Australia, the major trade union for plumbers.

About 30 percent of plumbers and pipe fitters belong to unions, according to unionstats.com, a website that estimates union membership based on federal data. The United Association, with 300 local affiliates in 50 states, provides structured training programs and also functions as an employment hub, matching  members with jobs at companies that negotiate contracts with the union.

John Murphy, business manager of United Association Local 1 in New York City, said the local’s 6,000 members work primarily on major construction projects, like office towers and hospitals. Union apprentices at Local 1 start at $14 an hour and make more than $50 per hour after completing a five-year apprenticeship and passing a test to advance to journeyman plumber status, Mr. Murphy said. Experienced plumbers can make $200,000 a year, he said — but that typically means many hours on the job.  Openings for apprenticeships tend to vary with the economy; if the outlook calls for significant new construction, more openings occur. Local 1 tries to maintain its apprentices at about 20 percent of its active membership, said Mr. Murphy.

The union makes 1,000 applications available about every two years, he said, and about 400 applicants are deemed qualified after taking a basic aptitude test and an assessment of manual dexterity. The union draws from that pool for new apprentice classes. Also, a certain number of apprentices come from "direct entry" programs, he said, like those promoting the hiring of veterans. Over the last 18 months, the local has accepted 275 new apprentices.

While historically sons of plumbers often became plumbers, family members don’t get special preference, said Mr. Murphy, a fourth-generation plumber. “My son would have to get on line, along with everyone else.”

Plumbing is still a male-dominated trade; just 1.1 percent of plumbers and those in related trades are women, according to 2013 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Some union locals have programs to encourage women to become apprentices. United Association 1 in New York works with Nontraditional Employment for Women, or NEW, which aims to bring women into the construction trades, to hire women as apprentices, said Mr. Murphy. The local has 39 female apprentices, 22 of whom joined in the past 18 months.

Mr. Rosenblum, who chose the nonunion training route, is a fourth-year apprentice; he expects to take the test for his journeyman’s license in the spring. A native of tiny Greers Ferry, Ark., he spent time as a young man helping his grandfather build houses. He graduated from high school in 1998 and later enlisted in the Marine Corps. After completing a nine-month tour in Iraq and Kuwait in 2004, he moved to California and completed an associate degree under the G.I. bill.

He worked for about six years as the director of property services for an apartment company that managed 5,000 units in Orange County, but then moved on to work for a friend who owned a plumbing company. (Under California’s rules, he said, individual plumbers do not have to be licensed, as long as they are working for a licensed plumber.)

He found he enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of plumbing. Most anybody, he said, can learn how to change an angle stop — the little shut-off valve found under every sink — or replace a flapper in their toilet tank. “But knowing actually how plumbing works and, you know, determining issues and plumbing problems, that’s kind of one of the things I like to specialize in,” he said.

About a year ago, he became engaged to a California woman who had family back in his home state, and they decided to move to Arkansas. He researched plumbing companies online and after sending out few applications was hired at Allied Plumbing & Drain Service, a firm in Springdale, Ark.

Mr. Rosenblum was taking a bit of a risk; under the rules in Arkansas, his plumbing experience in California wouldn’t necessarily count toward licensing requirements. Fortunately, he said, he had good documentation of three and a half years of work, so state authorities required that he complete just one year of training and instruction to become eligible to take the journeyman’s test. He was accepted at an apprenticeship program at Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville, Ark., and attends classes one night a week.

 Once he passes the journeyman’s test and works for an additional year, he’ll be eligible to apply to take the exam for a master plumber’s license. That means he’ll be able to obtain work permits on his own and also will be able to train new plumbers. “At that point in time, you can basically do anything a plumber needs to get done,” he said.

Mr. Rosenblum solders a copper pipe. Plumbers go through years of training for their licenses. (Beth Hall/The New York Times)

Dan Mallory, 56, founder and president of Allied Plumbing and Mr. Rosenblum’s boss, starts apprentices at $10 to $12 an hour and pays for their training; their hourly wage can increase to as much as $18 an hour over four years. Once they pass their journeyman’s test, he said, they are eligible for commissions based on the cost of the assignments they complete, which gives them the opportunity to make more money.

A few of his plumbers earn six-figure incomes, he said, but a typical workweek is around 50 hours, and the jobs are often physically demanding. His plumbers take turns being on call overnight and on weekends and often work outside in bitterly cold weather. After four years, his plumbers can make a very good income as long as they don’t “have a mind-set of working 8 to 5,” he said.

Mr. Mallory still goes out on calls himself because, he says, he enjoys the work. He began working for a plumber in Oklahoma as a teenager and passed the state’s equivalent of the master plumber test at age 20 — he was told he was one of the youngest in the state to pass the test at the time. He recalls working 100 hours a week, until his schedule strained his marriage and forced him to cut back. He later became a home builder, but he said he returned to plumbing when he had trouble finding enough plumbers to work on the houses he was building. He built Allied into a regional firm and now employs 15 plumbers and apprentices.

His company does both new construction work and service plumbing, responding to both residential and commercial customers. Doing both helps the company ride out the ups and downs of the economy. “If you’re a service plumber,” he said, “it’s pretty much recession-proof.”

Still, there’s no avoiding the downsides, including the potential for encountering raw sewage. Mr. Rosenblum said he wore gloves as much as possible on the job and made sure his immunizations were up-to-date to avoid becoming ill. Sometimes, “it’s just nasty,” he said.

And the unpredictable work hours are another negative. “You can’t just drop your pipe wrench and say ‘O.K., it’s 5 o’clock, I’m going home,’ and they still don’t have water to their house,” he said.

But Mr. Rosenblum, who typically gets going with a 5:30 a.m. workout at the gym, says long days don’t faze him, and more hours mean more income. He also plans to complete a business degree at a local university to fully prepare for his career.

Work in America: Our special series in partnership with the New York Times looking at how the improvements in technology, combined with companies’ increased ability to outsource, have conspired to make radical changes to work in America. 

"If you’re just a guy that goes in and puts in your 40 hours a week, you’re going to make minimal salary,” he said. “But if you put in a little extra time and a little extra work, you’re going to do well."

It may (or may not) help homeowners on the receiving end of pricey plumbing bills that Mr. Rosenblum said he often feels bad when toting up the cost of a repair, especially in tough economic times.  "I hate to be the bearer of bad news when it comes to my customers," he said, especially since having water and proper drainage is a necessity. It’s hard, he said, to present someone with a bill for $150 or $200, when they might be tight on cash. But, "at the end of the day, they called me out, and they need to get it done," he said. 

Bringing more women into the startup ecosystem

Tue, 2014-03-25 01:00

Started in 2005, Y Combinator has served as the birthplace for some of the best known companies in the tech industry - Reddit, Dropbox, and Pebble are just a few of the organizations that benefitted from one of the incubator's bi-annual startup smorgasbords. Since its inception, over 630 startups have taken 3 months to move to Silicon Valley, during which they prepare to pitch to investors during the final Demo Day. Being selected as a Y Combinator participant can be a huge jumping off point for entrepreneurs with a good idea and the motivation to see it through.

Though, the organization hasn't been without controversy. Former President Paul Graham came under fire for comments that seemed to disparage women's potential as leaders of startup companies (Graham insists he was misquoted).

Regardless, it seems one of the goals for the organization, or at least for newly appointed President Sam Altman, is to promote more female entrepreneurs into the program. According to Altman, the most recent class of Y Combinator participants is 24% female, which is higher than what the tech industry at large can claim.

As far as successfully pitching to investors, Altman points to classic missteps in public speaking as the first hurdle Y Combinator participants have to clear; things like remembering to speak clearly and make eye contact with the audience. The next step is a little bit trickier.

"But really if you look at a fundamental level, in a two and a half minute pitch, all you're trying to do is convince investors that there is a chance, however small, that you could be the next $10 billion startup."

 

Putting student debt on trial

Tue, 2014-03-25 01:00

You may have to find a new way to make mom proud.

A new report from the New American Foundation shows problematic debt levels for graduate students -- an 8 percent annual rise for the last four years. Law school in particular is known for its hefty tuition bills --  the average debt load for law students in 2012 was just over $140,000.

And applications have plummeted in the past few years.


American Bar Association

At the same time, John Cashman, vice president for law firm recruiting at Major, Lindsey & Africa says the state of the job market right now for lawyers is "dicey."

"I think the value of a law degree is basically the same," Cashman adds. "What's changed, is the calculation of risk and return is much more important."

 

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the spelling of the name of the law firm Major, Lindsey & Africa. The text has been corrected.

Being uninsured versus underinsured

Tue, 2014-03-25 00:29

As Monday's deadline to sign up for health insurance or face a penalty approaches, there's plenty of attention on the uninsured. But how about the underinsured? 

Nearly 32 million people were underinsured in 2012, meaning they had insurance but that it wasn't robust enough to protect them from major medical costs, according to a new report from the Commonwealth Fund

The figures are from before individuals could buy insurance on Affordable Care Act exchanges, but some say the problem persists. 

Suzy Jeffreys, who runs the North-by-Northeast Community Health Center in Portland, Ore., says often the patients who don’t qualify for *Medicaid choose the next cheapest healthcare option.


Commonwealth Fund

*CORRECTION: A previous verions of this article misstated that patients who didn't qualify for Medicare, instead of Medicaid, were seeking other healthcare options. The text has been corrected.

 

Interview with Box CEO Aaron Levie

Tue, 2014-03-25 00:20

You've heard plenty about cloud computing, but have you heard of the company called Box?

In the world of online storage and big data, Box is the David to tech Goliaths Microsoft and Oracle. The company had filed for an initial public offering earlier this year and now Box has made the details of that filing public. CEO Aaron Levie and company hope to raise $250 million, though Box isn't profitable yet. In its regulatory filing, the company says it has 25 million registered users.

We spoke with 29 year-old Aaron Levie about Box before his company released the details of his IPO.

Q: Give me a basic description of the Box mission.

At Box what we’re really focused on is helping businesses take all the data that they create and generate, all the files and information in their company, and move that to the cloud. So they can securely share information, collaborate around it, work with partners and colleagues and distribute all of the data they need to all of the right people in and outside of their company. And that’s what we do for now 200,000 companies across the globe.

Q: It's an interesting time for companies like yours. Why is this such a moment for service companies?

Right now, I think we’re in a really important and interesting time in the software ecosystem, particularly as it relates to the enterprise world. You have nearly $300 billion that is spent every single year on traditional software and hardware that goes into managing the sort of information backbone of enterprises. And the vast majority of that technology’s going to migrate to the cloud.

We’ve seen companies like Workday and Google and Salesforce that have delivered next generation technologies that help companies use their information, and it means that the enterprise doesn’t have to have any of that software or hardware in their business anymore. And so what we try and do at Box is we are trying to power the content layer of the next generation enterprise that can let you collaborate and share much more efficiently.

The exciting part is how much this can change how businesses operate and work with their information. So we’re seeing companies from manufacturing to health care to financial services that are beginning to change the very nature of how they work and the products they deliver, because now they have so much data they can work with from anywhere.

Q: Your particular area has some pretty big competitors. Microsoft is a competitor. Amazon is a competitor. How is Box different?

We, for some reason, just really enjoy pain. We chose one of the more dynamic markets that are out there from a competitive standpoint. But, interestingly, when we started the company nine and a half years ago, we had this idea that as the cost of storage went down, as mobility increased, and as bandwidth increased, that you’d want to be able to get to your files from anywhere.

That led us to being early enough in the market where we were able to create early competitive advantage by always focusing on delivering the absolute best customer experience while also ensuring that enterprises of all sizes could use our technology. Our real differentiation is: Whether you’re a company of 10,000 employees or 50,000 employees or 250,000 employees, you can use our product as the most secure solution for sharing and collaborating on data, but as an individual, you experience our service just as you would any consumer application. And it’s that sort of balance and pairing of a consumer focus with an enterprise technology set that allows us to compete very effectively for large enterprises like Proctor and Gamble and E-bay and Eli Lily and Schneider Electric, all of which have rolled Box out to tens of thousands of their employees.

Q: If one of your big competitors came to you and asked to buy, would you say yes?

No. We’re very focused on building out an independent company. We’re only a couple percent of the way thought this journey that we’d like to go on, and as we look at the space and time that we operate in right now, we’ll look back at this period and it will be very similar to the early 1980s, when PCs entered the enterprise and changed every single thing about IT within organizations. We’re in one of those periods right now with the combination of mobile computing and cloud [computing] coming together. This is going to enable every business in the world to change how they’re going to work and how they build products and how they compete in their own marketplaces. We’re very early in what we want to create and accomplish in this market, so we are definitely not selling.

Q: You’re 29. What are the pressures that come with that? Do you feel pressure related to your age and what you’re doing? What people expect from you and what people expect from your company?

Well actually, I’m feeling quite old these days. Most of the up and coming founders are 21 and 22 -- I literally have grey hair -- and I’ve been through quite a bit with Box. I think we’ve certainly been through a lot of the learning events that startups go through, and I think that’s helped us mature as a company. The space that we play in, the enterprise world, means that we have to surround ourselves with incredible talent that can allow us to go execute. So I think we’re very fortunate to have built up a company where age hasn’t been as much of an issue, because we’ve built a very strong team around us. But there’s a lot of pressure to always be growing the company and always be competing as effectively as possible.

Q: Is there a form of software or hardware that doesn’t exist that you’re waiting for that will make a huge change to what you do?

About a week ago I would not have had a good answer to that question, and now I do. We’re really starting to see some pretty tremendous use cases for our technology and for lots of enterprise technologies out there. As an example, there are a lot of conversations about drones. So if you’re a construction company and you want to be able to have aerial imagery of your construction site -- to be able to either monitor it, or be able to see certain angles that are really hard to get to -- if you’re in agriculture and you want to be able to study your crop yield or be able to see different kinds of patterns from a weather standpoint, you can now have drones that basically are augmenting our ability to collect information and gather data.

What we didn’t realize was that a couple of these commercial drone companies are using Box as the storage platform for the data that they generated. So all of this aerial imagery can go into our platform where you can look at it, share it, collaborate around it and have a secure place for accessing that information. Every day we’re seeing all these new use cases for information that is going to change the competitive dynamics of companies that begin to take that information. If you’re a farm and you’re using drones to augment your talent force, you’re going to be much more competitive than the farm that’s not getting that information.

So we think a lot of these technologies are going to come together to change competitive advantage in ways we never imagined.

New contact lenses have night-vision capability

Mon, 2014-03-24 14:00

Researchers at the University of Michigan say they've discovered a way to make contact lenses that have night vision capability.

It's all about using super-thin layers of graphene, if you want to know the science of it.

Call me a geek, but I mean... cool, right?

 

[<a href="//storify.com/Marketplace/who-can-see-in-the-dark" target="_blank">View the story "Who can see in the dark?" on Storify</a>]

The impact of sanctions against Russia

Mon, 2014-03-24 14:00

President Obama was in Europe Monday, discussing economic pressure on Russia. He’s also warning of potentially stronger sanctions, “a greater cost,” if Russia keeps at it in Ukraine.

Current sanctions include a number of Russian government officials and oligarchs, as well as Bank Rossiya, described by the U.S. Treasury Department as “the personal bank for senior officials of the Russian Federation.”

On its face, sanctioning one bank and a handful of Russian billionaires may not sound like a sweeping move. But because of their broad network of affiliated companies and deep involvement with Russian business and politics, the impact could potentially be more widespread than it may first appear.

Russia’s currency and stock market have both fallen in recent days, impacting an economy that was lacklustre even before the crisis in Ukraine. Now potential investors in Russia are thinking twice, worried that the next round of sanctions could target their interests. That means Russia could lose out on the business deals and investment it needs.

Russia’s Economy By The Numbers, by Marketplace’s Tobin Low

-13.71%

How much Russia’s key index is down. YTD, representing tens of billions in company value destroyed.

-8%

How much the conversion rate of 1 ruble to $1 has fallen.

Mark Garrison: Russia’s key stock index is down nearly 14% this year. That’s tens of billions in company value gone. This as the ruble has sunk. Cliff Kupchan of Eurasia Group lays out the sanctions so far.

Cliff Kupchan: We sanctioned a number of oligarchs very close to Mr. Putin, but only one company, Bank Rossiya, which is alleged to run a lot of the Kremlin’s money.

A handful of Russian billionaires may not sound like a sweeping move, but it’s more than you might think.

Christopher Swift: It’s also every single entity that these individuals own or control.

International lawyer Christopher Swift of Foley & Lardner points out that these oligarchs weave tangled webs.

Swift: Because a lot of these individuals operate their business empires through third-party proxies and shell companies in Europe and North America, the scope is much broader than most people assume just looking at this list.

And that’s before we get to what else the U.S. and allies could do.

Juan Zarate: These are the initial stages of what could be a more comprehensive financial isolation campaign.

Juan Zarate is senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Russia had economic trouble well before the crisis in Ukraine.

Zarate: I think there had already been questions as to the strength of the Russian economy. And then you add to this the uncertainty as to what may come and I think investors are starting to worry as to what the next stages are.

Which means, says Cliff Kupchan, that even companies not on the list could suffer.

Kupchan: Everybody’s now wondering what Russian companies indeed are off limits. Should I consummate a deal with x Russian company or will I be sanctioned?

Harsher sanctions aren’t in place yet. But global business leaders are starting to act like they’re coming. That means Russia could lose out on deals and investment it needs. I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

25 years after the Exxon Valdez crisis, we've learned...?

Mon, 2014-03-24 13:24

It’s been 25 years since the Exxon Valdez hit a reef and spilled millions of gallons of oil, polluting hundreds of miles of Alaska’s shoreline.

If you were alive during the spill, you can probably still recall the video footage: black shorelines, dead sea otters, oil soaked birds.

“It was vivid,” said Zygmunt Plater, an environmental law professor at Boston College who worked on the Alaska Oil Spill Commission after Valdez. “It pointed to the problems of the oil mega-system." Along every step of the process, he said, “there was repeated cost cutting to increase risk. Our commission concluded that this mega-system was dominated by complacency, collusion and neglect.”

Those are words heard after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, nearly 20 years later.

Valdez also showed us just how vulnerable the environment can be, in a way that previous oil spills, including the Santa Barbara spill in 1969, had not.

“It underscored the enormous risk that we place natural resources at when we produce and distribute oil,” said Bob Deans, a spokesperson for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The risk was something we hadn’t quite come to terms with, he said. “There was this perception that it was safe to do this,” Deans said, “and that if the oil got in the water, surely industry had a way to clean it up. Surely there was a way to save the oceans and marine life from the consequence of a spill like this, and we found out that none of that was true.” 

After the Exxon Valdez and again, after the BP oil spill, regulations were tightened.

But spills are not things of the past.

Over the weekend, about 170,000 gallons of oil gushed out into Galveston Bay when an oil barge and cargo ship collided.

Apple + Comcast = ?

Mon, 2014-03-24 13:20

Apple and Comcast are reportedly discussing a deal that would give Apple special access to Comcast's wires, the ones that bring cable TV into your home. According to the Wall Street Journal, Apple would then deliver streaming television through a set top box.

The deal, if it becomes a deal, would give Apple access to what's called "the last mile" -- the last section of cable that runs from a neighborhood box into individual homes.

"Apple would get what's called managed service access," says Kevin Werbach, a telecom consultant and professor of business ethics at The Wharton School of Business. "So their content would go over a distinct high-priority pipe across the Comcast network and not be mixed in with other internet traffic."

As you've probably noticed, the quality of video on your TV can vary greatly between traditional cable TV and streaming TV. Take Netflix, for example: lots of people had trouble streaming the new season of "House of Cards". So Netflix agreed to pay extra to Comcast for more bandwidth.

A managed service deal with Apple would be great for Comcast because it would allow the cable company to maintain its role as a gatekeeper for content, says Craig Aaron, president of Freepress, a consumer advocacy group.

"Apple should be a competitor with Comcast, Netflix should be a competitor with Comcast, helping bring down prices, offer more choices," he says. But under a managed service deal, Apple's content would have to go through the cable companies infrastructure, effectively turning Comcast's biggest threat into a source of revenue.

It also solves another problem for Comcast. Increasingly people are not signing up for cable. Instead, they are using apps and internet devices to watch video. A deal like this would also make Comcast relevant in the new media landscape.

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