Several of the following comments were taken from the Washington Free Beacon.

If you have been reading my posts you know that just about all involve the STEM professions, travel, salary levels for engineers, book reviews, restaurant reviews, etc etc.  In other words—I usually do NOT do political.  Politicians are fascinating people because ALL people are fascinating.  We all have a story to tell.  OK, with that being the case, I could not resist this time. Take a look.

Senate increases budget by forty-eight ($48) million, salaries by twelve ($12) million. That was the sub-title to the Washington Free Beacon article relative to the Omnibus Spending Bill just signed by President Trump. How much is $1.3 trillion dollars?  ANSWER:  It’s a million million. It’s a thousand billion. It’s a one followed by 12 zeros. 1,000,000,000,000.  The following digital photograph represents one billion dollars.

The next digital represents a trillion dollars.

Please notice the little guy, at the left of the stack.

You ready for this?

The Senate increased its total salaries of officers and employees by $12.6 million in the 2,232-page bill that lawmakers had fewer than forty-eight (48) hours to read and vote on. The bill avoids a government shutdown that would take place at midnight on Friday.

Aside from giving their own institutions a bonus, the omnibus bill also gives away millions to prevent “elderly falls,” promote breastfeeding, and fight “excessive alcohol use.”

The legislation increases the Senate budget to $919.9 million, up $48.8 million from fiscal year 2017, according to the congressional summary of the bill.

  • “The increase provides funding necessary for critical modernization and upgrades of the Senate financial management system and investments in IT security,” the summary states.
  • Salaries of staffers in the Senate are also set for an increase. Division Iof the legislation breaks down the total salaries of officers and employees, which are being raised from $182 million in 2017 to $194.8 million in the final bill, an increase of $12.58 million.
  • The Senate also increased its expense account, as expense allowances are going from $177,000 to $192,000, an increase of $15,000.
  • Committee offices got an increase of $22.9 million in salaries, from $181.5 million in 2017 to $204.4 million in the final bill.
  • Another $15 million goes to study “high obesity counties” and an increase of $5 million for the CDC program that seeks to “address obesity in counties” by leveraging “the community extension services provided by land grant universities who are mandated to translate science into practical action and promote healthy lifestyles.”
  • The bill also spends $2.05 million to prevent “elderly falls” and $8 million in the form of “breastfeeding grants.”
  • The legislation also mandatesthe Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to improve “wine label accuracy.”

I’m sure the bill does some very good things one being added money for our armed forces.  We have experienced in 2017 a terrible statistic—the number of casualties resulting from training our men and women in uniform exceeded the number of casualties in combat.  This is largely due to lack of funding for equipment maintenance and training.

I know or at least suspect, there is a great deal of behind-the-scenes activity on the part of each congressman and senator required for preparation prior to each legislative session.  Let’s take a look at the number of scheduled sessions over the past few years. Here are the number of legislative days for the House and Senate each year in recent history:

  • 2016: 131 in the House, 165 in the Senate.
  • 2015: 157 in the House, 168 in the Senate.
  • 2014: 135 in the House, 136 in the Senate.
  • 2013: 159 in the House, 156 in the Senate.
  • 2012: 153 in the House, 153 in the Senate.
  • 2011: 175 in the House, 170 in the Senate.
  • 2010: 127 in the House, 158 in the Senate.
  • 2009: 159 in the House, 191 in the Senate.
  • 2008: 119 in the House, 184 in the Senate.
  • 2007: 164 in the House, 190 in the Senate.
  • 2006: 101 in the House, 138 in the Senate.
  • 2005: 120 in the House, 159 in the Senate.
  • 2004: 110 in the House, 133 in the Senate.
  • 2003: 133 in the House, 167 in the Senate.
  • 2002: 123 in the House, 149 in the Senate.
  • 2001: 143 in the House, 173 in the Senate.

An “unhappy” President Donald Trump signed the $1.3 trillion spending bill into law Friday, his second about-face in twenty-four (24) hours on the measure to keep the government open.

The president said he approved the legislation to fund the government through September for national security reasons, as it authorizes a major increase in military spending that he supports. But he stressed that he did so reluctantly.

Trump slammed the rushed process to pass the more than 2,200-page bill released only Wednesday. Standing near the pile of documents, the president said he was “disappointed” in the legislation and would “never sign another bill like this again.”

So much for draining the swamp. We are good through September of this year and then we start all over again.  ALL OVER AGAIN!

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Portions of this post are taken from the January 2018 article written by John Lewis of “Vision Systems”.

I feel there is considerable confusion between Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning and Deep Learning.  Seemingly, we use these terms and phrases interchangeably and they certainly have different meanings.  Natural Learning is the intelligence displayed by humans and certain animals. Why don’t we do the numbers:

AI:

Artificial Intelligence refers to machines mimicking human cognitive functions such as problem solving or learning.  When a machine understands human speech or can compete with humans in a game of chess, AI applies.  There are several surprising opinions about AI as follows:

  • Sixty-one percent (61%) of people see artificial intelligence making the world a better place
  • Fifty-seven percent (57%) would prefer an AI doctor perform an eye exam
  • Fifty-five percent (55%) would trust an autonomous car. (I’m really not there as yet.)

The term artificial intelligence was coined in 1956, but AI has become more popular today thanks to increased data volumes, advanced algorithms, and improvements in computing power and storage.

Early AI research in the 1950s explored topics like problem solving and symbolic methods. In the 1960s, the US Department of Defense took interest in this type of work and began training computers to mimic basic human reasoning. For example, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) completed street mapping projects in the 1970s. And DARPA produced intelligent personal assistants in 2003, long before Siri, Alexa or Cortana were household names. This early work paved the way for the automation and formal reasoning that we see in computers today, including decision support systems and smart search systems that can be designed to complement and augment human abilities.

While Hollywood movies and science fiction novels depict AI as human-like robots that take over the world, the current evolution of AI technologies isn’t that scary – or quite that smart. Instead, AI has evolved to provide many specific benefits in every industry.

MACHINE LEARNING:

Machine Learning is the current state-of-the-art application of AI and largely responsible for its recent rapid growth. Based upon the idea of giving machines access to data so that they can learn for themselves, machine learning has been enabled by the internet, and the associated rise in digital information being generated, stored and made available for analysis.

Machine learning is the science of getting computers to act without being explicitly programmed. In the past decade, machine learning has given us self-driving cars, practical speech recognition, effective web search, and a vastly improved understanding of the human genome. Machine learning is so pervasive today that you probably use it dozens of times a day without knowing it. Many researchers also think it is the best way to make progress towards human-level understanding. Machine learning is an application of artificial intelligence (AI) that provides systems the ability to automatically learn and improve from experience without being explicitly programmed. Machine learning focuses on the development of computer programs that can access data and use it learn for themselves.

DEEP LEARNING:

Deep Learning concentrates on a subset of machine-learning techniques, with the term “deep” generally referring to the number of hidden layers in the deep neural network.  While conventional neural network may contain a few hidden layers, a deep network may have tens or hundreds of layers.  In deep learning, a computer model learns to perform classification tasks directly from text, sound or image data. In the case of images, deep learning requires substantial computing power and involves feeding large amounts of labeled data through a multi-layer neural network architecture to create a model that can classify the objects contained within the image.

CONCLUSIONS:

Brave new world we are living in.  Someone said that AI is definitely the future of computing power and eventually robotic systems that could possibly replace humans.  I just hope the programmers adhere to Dr. Isaac Asimov’s three laws:

 

  • The First Law of Robotics: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

 

  • The Second Law of Robotics: A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

 

  • The Third Law of Robotics: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

With those words, science-fiction author Isaac Asimov changed how the world saw robots. Where they had largely been Frankenstein-esque, metal monsters in the pulp magazines, Asimov saw the potential for robotics as more domestic: as a labor-saving device; the ultimate worker. In doing so, he continued a literary tradition of speculative tales: What happens when humanity remakes itself in its image?

As always, I welcome your comments.

THE NEXT COLD WAR

February 3, 2018


I’m old enough to remember the Cold War waged by the United States and Russia.  The term “Cold War” first appeared in a 1945 essay by the English writer George Orwell called “You and the Atomic Bomb”.

HOW DID THIS START:

During World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union fought together as allies against the Axis powers, Germany, Japan and Italy. However, the relationship between the two nations was a tense one. Americans had long been wary of Soviet communism and concerned about Russian leader Joseph Stalin’s tyrannical, blood-thirsty rule of his own country. For their part, the Soviets resented the Americans’ decades-long refusal to treat the USSR as a legitimate part of the international community as well as their delayed entry into World War II, which resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of Russians. After the war ended, these grievances ripened into an overwhelming sense of mutual distrust and enmity. Postwar Soviet expansionism in Eastern Europe fueled many Americans’ fears of a Russian plan to control the world. Meanwhile, the USSR came to resent what they perceived as American officials’ bellicose rhetoric, arms buildup and interventionist approach to international relations. In such a hostile atmosphere, no single party was entirely to blame for the Cold War; in fact, some historians believe it was inevitable.

American officials encouraged the development of atomic weapons like the ones that had ended World War II. Thus, began a deadly “arms race.” In 1949, the Soviets tested an atom bomb of their own. In response, President Truman announced that the United States would build an even more destructive atomic weapon: the hydrogen bomb, or “superbomb.” Stalin followed suit.

The ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation had a great impact on American domestic life as well. People built bomb shelters in their backyards. They practiced attack drills in schools and other public places. The 1950s and 1960s saw an epidemic of popular films that horrified moviegoers with depictions of nuclear devastation and mutant creatures. In these and other ways, the Cold War was a constant presence in Americans’ everyday lives.

SPACE AND THE COLD WAR:

Space exploration served as another dramatic arena for Cold War competition. On October 4, 1957, a Soviet R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile launched Sputnik (Russian for “traveler”), the world’s first artificial satellite and the first man-made object to be placed into the Earth’s orbit. Sputnik’s launch came as a surprise, and not a pleasant one, to most Americans. In the United States, space was seen as the next frontier, a logical extension of the grand American tradition of exploration, and it was crucial not to lose too much ground to the Soviets. In addition, this demonstration of the overwhelming power of the R-7 missile–seemingly capable of delivering a nuclear warhead into U.S. air space–made gathering intelligence about Soviet military activities particularly urgent.

In 1958, the U.S. launched its own satellite, Explorer I, designed by the U.S. Army under the direction of rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, and what came to be known as the Space Race was underway. That same year, President Dwight Eisenhower signed a public order creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a federal agency dedicated to space exploration, as well as several programs seeking to exploit the military potential of space. Still, the Soviets were one step ahead, launching the first man into space in April 1961.

THE COLD WAR AND AI (ARTIFICIAL INTELLEGENCE):

Our country NEEDS to consider AI as an extension of the cold war.  Make no mistake about it, AI will definitely play into the hands of a few desperate dictators or individuals in future years.  A country that thinks its adversaries have or will get AI weapons will need them also to retaliate or deter foreign use against the US. Wide use of AI-powered cyberattacks may still be some time away. Countries might agree to a proposed Digital Geneva Convention to limit AI conflict. But that won’t stop AI attacks by independent nationalist groups, militias, criminal organizations, terrorists and others – and countries can back out of treaties. It’s almost certain, therefore, that someone will turn AI into a weapon – and that everyone else will do so too, even if only out of a desire to be prepared to defend themselves. With Russia embracing AI, other nations that don’t or those that restrict AI development risk becoming unable to compete – economically or militarily – with countries wielding developed AIs. Advanced AIs can create advantage for a nation’s businesses, not just its military, and those without AI may be severely disadvantaged. Perhaps most importantly, though, having sophisticated AIs in many countries could provide a deterrent against attacks, as happened with nuclear weapons during the Cold War.

The Congress of the United States and the Executive Branch need to “lose” the high school mentality and get back in the game.  They need to address the future instead of living in the past OR we the people need to vote them all out and start over.

 

DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES

November 29, 2017


The graphics for this post are from Feris Alsulmi and the Entrepreneur Magazine.

The title of this post is not really a challenge but merely a question.  Do you have what it takes to be an entrepreneur?  Most individuals at some time in their lives feel they can do it better.  I’ll let you define “IT” but everyone working for a living has dreamed of going it alone—even if that thought is fleeting and momentary.  Someone once said that if your dreams don’t scare you, you are not dreaming big enough.   I would hazard a guess we see the light at the end of that long tunnel as being riches untold and not really considering the journey that got us there.  I have started two or three businesses and can relate from personal experience there are those dark days.  Waking up at 2:00 A.M. Wednesday morning wondering how you will make payroll on Friday.  If you are challenged by the prospects, you may appreciate the following graphics and comments.  Let’s take a quick look.

WHAT ARE THE OBVIOUS OBSTACLES

No one wants to fail. No one wants to spend time and money working from dawn to dusk with the result being deep in debt and possible bankruptcy.    Even with this being the case, fully 98% of the replies from polls taken indicate the greatest obstacle is the willingness or the ability to take the necessary risks.  Age may be a factor.  Family circumstances may be a factor. Possible lack of knowledge may be a factor. Fear may be a factor.  Clearly, the ability to attract necessary capital IS a factor.  Ted Turner once said “never use your own money when starting a venture”.  Easy for Turner to say.  In today’s world, finding an “angel” or investment capital is a huge problem.   Thanks to a do-nothing Congress and Executive Branch, we have tax codes that work against an individual launching a business.  This will not change with the next administration or the 114th Congress.  It won’t change.

In looking at the graphic above, you can see 2009 numbers and they are not pretty.  Sixty-one thousand bankruptcies and six hundred and sixty-one thousand company closures.  Most of these are retail establishments relative to manufacturing companies but even so—that hurts.  Now, 2009 was the year after the housing bubble popped.  Did you see that coming? I did not. Not on my radar at all and yet, the bubble affected all of us. Everyone.  You will not be taking your family for Sunday dinner or a movie on Saturday if you have a sudden drop in sales.  People with their homes in foreclosure don’t spend for items somewhat frivolous in nature.

IS AGE A FACTOR

It’s a given fact, the older you are the more experience you have.  There are few successful business owners under the age of thirty and most of them are whiz-kids involved in computer science and programming.  Good for them, but most of us are not.

Again, from the graphic, you see that seventy percent of new business owners are married and sixty percent have at least one child.  These facts weigh very heavily on one’s mind with contemplating ownership of a company.

Now the big question:

There are mavericks that launch their businesses without benefit of those items given above but probably few, if any, who do not at least consider the questions posed above.  It takes:

Consider the questions and problems above.  Are you willing to jump?  Is now the time? Are the conditions proper for the company I contemplate starting?  Is my family situation right for a new professional direction?  Am I really dedicated to a fifty, sixty or even seventy hour work week?  If you cannot give answers in a positive fashion to these questions you may really need to continue working for “the man”.  Just a thought.

 


Portions of this post are taken from the publication “Industry Week”, Bloomberg View, 30 October 2017.

The Bloomberg report begins by stating: “The industrial conglomerate has lost $100 billion in market value this year as investors came to terms with the dawning reality that GE’s businesses don’t generate enough cash to support its rich dividend.”

Do you in your wildest dreams think that Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, would have produced results such as this?  I do NOT think so.  Welch “lived” with the guys on Wall Street.  These pitiful results come to us from Mr. Jeffery Immelt.  It’s also now clear that years of streamlining didn’t go far enough as challenges of dumpster-fire proportions at its power and energy divisions overshadowed what were actually pretty good third-quarter health-care and aviation numbers.  Let me mention right now that I can sound off at the results.  I retired from a GE facility—The Roper Corporation, in 2005.

The new CEO John Flannery’s pledged to divest twenty billion ($20 billion) in assets perhaps is risking another piecemeal breakup but as details leak on the divestitures and other changes Flannery’s contemplating, there’s at least a shot he could be positioning the company for something more drastic.  Now back to Immelt.

Immelt took over the top position at GE in 2001. Early attempts at changing the culture to meet Immelt’s ideas about what the corporate culture should look like were not very successful. It was during the financial crisis that he began to think differently. It seems as if his thinking followed three paths. First, get rid of the financial areas of the company because they were just a diversion to what needed to be done. Second, make GE into a company focused upon industrial goods. And, third, create a company that would tie the industrial goods to information technology so that the physical and the informational would all be of one package. The results of Immelt’s thinking are not impressive and did not position GE for company growth in the twenty-first century.

Any potential downsizing by Flannery will please investors who have viewed the digital foray as an expensive pet project of Immelt’s, but it’s sort of a weird thing to do if you still want to turn GE into a top-ten software company — as is the divestiture of the digital-facing Centricity health-care IT operations that GE is reportedly contemplating.  Perhaps a wholesale breakup of General Electric Co. isn’t such an improbable idea after all.

GE has lost one hundred billion ($100 billion) in market value this year as investors came to terms with the dawning reality that GE’s businesses don’t generate enough cash to support its rich dividend. It’s also now clear that years of streamlining didn’t go far enough as challenges of dumpster fire proportions at its power and energy divisions overshadowed what were actually pretty good third-quarter health-care and aviation numbers.

One argument against a breakup of GE was that it would detract from the breadth of expertise and resources that set the company apart in the push to make industrial machinery of all kinds run more efficiently. But now, GE’s approach to digital appears to be changing. Rather than trying to be everything for everyone, the company is refocusing digital marketing efforts on customers in its core businesses and deepening partnerships with tech giants including Microsoft Corp and Apple Inc. It hasn’t announced any financial backers yet, but that’s a possibility former CEO Jeff Immelt intimated before he departed. GE’s digital spending is a likely target of its cost-cutting push.

This downsizing will please investors who have viewed digital as an expensive pet project of Immelt’s, but it’s sort of a weird thing to do if you still want to turn GE into a top-10 software company — as is the divestiture of the digital-facing Centricity health-care IT operations that GE is reportedly contemplating.

The company is unlikely to abandon digital altogether. Industrial customers have been trained to expect data-enhanced efficiency, and GE has to offer that to be competitive. As Flannery said at GE’s Minds and Machines conference last week, “A company that just builds machines will not survive.” But if all we’re ultimately talking about here is smarter equipment, as opposed to a whole new software ecosystem, GE doesn’t necessarily need a health-care, aviation and power business.

Creating four or five mini-GEs would likely mean tax penalties.  That’s not in and of itself a reason to maintain a portfolio that’s not working. If it was, GE wouldn’t also be contemplating a sale of its transportation division. But one of GE’s flaws in the minds of investors right now is its financial complexity, and there’s something to be said for a complete rethinking of the way it’s put together. For what it’s worth, the average of JPMorgan Chase & Co. analyst Steve Tusa’s sum-of-the-parts analyses points to a twenty-dollar ($20) valuation — almost in line with GE’s closing price of $20.79 on Friday. Whatever premium the whole company once commanded over the value of its parts has been significantly weakened.

Wall Street is torn on General Electric, the one-time favorite blue chip for long-term investors, which is now facing an identity crisis and possible dividend cut. Major research shops downgraded and upgraded the industrial company following its third-quarter earnings miss this past Friday. The firm’s September quarter profits were hit by restructuring costs and weak performance from its power and oil and gas businesses. It was the company’s first earnings report under CEO John Flannery, who replaced Jeff Immelt in August. Two firms reduced their ratings for General Electric shares due to concerns about dividend cuts at its Nov. 13 analyst meeting. The company has a 4.2 percent dividend yield. General Electric shares declined 6.3 percent Monday to close at $22.32 a share after the reports. The percentage drop is the largest for the stock in six years. Its shares are down twenty-five (25%) percent year to date through Friday versus the S&P 500’s fifteen (15%) percent return.

At the end of the day, it comes down to what kind of company GE wants to be. The financial realities of a breakup might be painful, but so would years’ worth of pain in its power business as weak demand and pricing pressures drive a decline to a new normal of lower profitability. Does it really matter, then, what the growth opportunities are in aviation and health care? As head of M&A at GE, Flannery was at least partly responsible for the Alstom SA acquisition that swelled the size of the now-troubled power unit inside GE. If there really are “no sacred cows,” he has a chance to rewrite that legacy.

CONCLUSIONS:

Times are changing and GE had better change with those times or the company faces significant additional difficulties.  Direction must be left to the board of directors but it’s very obvious that accommodations to suite the present business climate are definitely in order.

MULTITASKING

September 14, 2017


THE DEFINITION:

“Multitasking, in a human context, is the practice of doing multiple things simultaneously, such as editing a document or responding to email while attending a teleconference.”

THE PROCESS:

The concept of multitasking began in a computing context. Computer multitasking, similarly to human multitasking, refers to performing multiple tasks at the same time. In a computer, multitasking refers to things like running more than one application simultaneously.   Modern-day computers are designed for multitasking. For humans, however, multitasking has been decisively proven to be an ineffective way to work. Research going back to the 1980s has indicated repeatedly that performance suffers when people multitask.

REALITY:

Multitasking is not a natural human trait.  In a few hundred years, natural evolution may improve human abilities but for now, we are just not good at it.  In 2007, an ABC Evening News broadcast cited, “People are interrupted once every ten and one-half minutes (10.5).  It takes twenty-three (23) minutes to regain your train of thought.  People lose two point one (2.1) hours each day in the process of multitasking.”

A great article entitled “No Task Left Behind” by Mark Gloria, indicated that a person juggled twelve (12) work spheres each day and fifty-seven percent (57%) of the work got interrupted.  As a result, twenty-three percent (23%) of the work to be accomplished that day got pushed to the next day and beyond. That was the case twelve years ago.  We all have been there trying to get the most of each day only to return home with frustration and more to do the next day.

Experience tells us that:

  • For students, an increase in multitasking predicted poorer academic results.
  • Multitaskers took longer to complete tasks and produced more errors.
  • People had more difficulty retaining new information while multitasking.
  • When tasks involved making selections or producing actions, even very simple tasks performed concurrently were impaired.
  • Multitaskers lost a significant amount of time switching back and forth between tasks, reducing their productivity up to forty percent (40%).
  • Habitual multitaskers were less effective than non-multitaskers even when doing one task at any given time because their ability to focus was impaired.
  • Multitasking temporarily causes an IQ drop of 10 points, the equivalent of going without sleep for a full night.
  • Multitaskers typically think they are more effective than is actually the case.
  • There are limited amounts of energy for any one given day.
  • Multitasking can lessen inter-personal skills and actually detract from the total work force.
  • It encourages procrastination.
  • A distracted mind may become permanent.

THE MYTH OF MULTITASKING:

People believe multitasking is a positive attribute, one to be admired. But multitasking is simply the lack of self-discipline. Multitasking is really switching your attention from one to task to another to another, instead of giving yourself over to a single task. Multitasking is easy; disciplined focus and attention is difficult.

The quality of your work is determined by how much of your time, your focus and your attention you give it. While multitasking feels good and feels busy, the quality of the work is never what it could be with the creator’s full attention. More and more, this is going to be apparent to those who are judging the work, especially when compared to work of someone who is disciplined and who has given the same or similar project their full focus and attention.

MENTAL FLOW:

In positive psychology, flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

The individual who coined the phrase “flow” was Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (Please do NOT ask me to pronounce Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s last name.)  He made the following statement:

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  

EIGHT CHARACTERISTICS OF “FLOW”:

  1. Complete concentration on the task.  By this we mean really complete.
  2. Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback. No need to focus and concentrate when there are no goals in mind to indicate completion.
  3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down of time). When in full “flow” mode, you lost time.
  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding, has an end itself.
  5. Effortlessness and ease.
  6. There is a balance between challenge and skills.
  7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination.
  8. There is a feeling of control over the task.

I personally do not get there often but the point is—you cannot get in the “zone”, you will not be able to achieve mental “flow” when you are in the multitasking mode.  I just will not happen.

As always, I welcome your comments.


The publication EfficientGov indicates the following: “The opioid crisis is creating a workforce epidemic leading to labor shortage and workplace safety and performance challenges.”

Opioid-related deaths have reached an all-time high in the United States. More than 47,000 people died in 2014, and the numbers are rising. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month released prescribing guidelines to help primary care physicians safely treat chronic pain while reducing opioid dependency and abuse. Given that the guidelines are not binding, how will the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services make sure they make a difference? What can payers and providers do to encourage a countrywide culture shift?

The opioid epidemic is also having widespread effects on many industries relative to labor shortages, workplace safety and worker performance.  Managers and owners are trying to figure out methods to deal with drug-addicted workers and job applicants.  HR managers cite the opioid crisis as one of their biggest challenges. Applicants are unwilling or unable to pass drug tests, employees are increasingly showing signs of addiction on the job and there are workers with opioid prescriptions having significant performance problems.

Let’s take a very quick look at only three employers and what they say about the crisis.

  • Clyde McClellan used to require a drug test before people could work at his Ohio pottery company, which produces 2,500 hand-cast coffee mugs a day for Starbucks and others. Now, he skips the tests and finds it more efficient to flat-out ask applicants: “What are you on?”
  • At Homer Laughlin China, a company that makes a colorful line of dishware known as Fiesta and employs 850 at a sprawling complex in Newell, W.V., up to half of applicants either fail or refuse to take mandatory pre-employment drug screens, said company president Liz McIlvain. “The drugs are so cheap and they’re so easily accessible,” McIlvain, a fourth-generation owner of the company, said. “We have a horrible problem here.”
  • “That is really the battlefield for us right now,” said Markus Dietrich,global manager of employee assistance and work-life services at chemical giant DuPont, which employs 46,000 worldwide.

As you might suspect, the epidemic is having a devastating effect on companies — large and small — and their ability to stay competitive. Managers and owners across the country are at a loss in how to deal with addicted workers and potential workers, calling the issue one of the biggest problems they face. Applicants are increasingly unwilling or unable to pass drug tests; then there are those who pass only to show signs of addiction once employed. Even more confounding: how to respond to employees who have a legitimate prescription for opioids but whose performance slips.  There are those individuals who have a need for pain-killers and to deny them would be difficult, but how do you deal with this if you are a manager and fear issues and potential law suites when there is over use?

The issue is amplifying labor shortages in industries like trucking, which has had difficulty for the last six (6) years finding qualified workers and drivers.  It is also pushing employers to broaden their job searches, recruiting people from greater distances when roles can’t be filled with local workers. At stake is not only safety and productivity within companies — but the need for humans altogether, with some manufacturers claiming opioids force them to automate work faster.

One corporate manager said: “You’re going to see manufacturing jobs slowly going away for, if nothing else, that reason alone.   “It’s getting worse, not better.”

Economists have noticed also. In Congressional testimony earlier this month, Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen related opioid use to a decline in the labor participation rate. The past three Fed surveys on the economy, known as the Beige Book, explicitly mentioned employers’ struggles in finding applicants to pass drug tests as a barrier to hiring. The surveys, snapshots of economic conditions in the Fed’s twelve (12) districts, don’t mention the type of drugs used.   A Congressional hearing in June of this year focused on opioids and their economic consequences, Ohio attorney general Mike DeWine estimated that forty (40) percent of applicants in the state either failed or refused a drug test. This prevents people from operating machinery, driving a truck or getting a job managing a McDonald’s, he said.

OK, what should a manufacturer do to lessen or hopefully eliminate the problem?  There have been put forth several suggestions, as follows:

Policy Option 1: Medical Education– Opioid education is crucial at all levels, from medical school and residency, through continuing education; and must involve primary care, specialists, mental health providers, pharmacies, emergency departments, clinics and patients. The push to increase opioid education must come from medical schools, academic medical centers, accrediting organizations and possibly state legislatures.

Policy Option 2: Continuing Medical Education– Emphasize the importance of continuing medical education (CME) for practicing physicians. CME can be strengthened by incorporating the new CDC guidelines, and physicians should learn when and how to safely prescribe these drugs and how to handle patients with drug-seeking behavior.

Policy Option 3: Public Education– Emphasize the need to address patient demand, not just physician supply, for opioids. It compared the necessary education to the campaign to reduce demand for antibiotics. The public needs to learn about the harms as well as the benefits of these powerful painkillers, and patients must understand that their pain can be treated with less-dangerous medications, or nonpharmacological interventions like physical therapy or acupuncture. Such education could be spearheaded by various physician associations and advocacy groups, with support from government agencies and officials at HHS and elsewhere.

Policy Option 4: Removing Perverse Incentives and Payment Barriers– Prescribing decisions are influenced by patient satisfaction surveys and insurance reimbursement practices, participants said. Patient satisfaction surveys are perceived — not necessarily accurately — as making it harder for physicians to say “no” to patients who are seeking opioids. Long-standing insurance practices, such as allowing only one pain prescription to be filled a month, are also encouraging doctors to prescribe more pills than a patient is likely to need — adding to the risk of overuse, as well as chance of theft, sale or other diversion of leftover drugs.

Policy Option 5: Solutions through Technology– Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMP) and Electronic Health Records (EHR) could be important tools in preventing opioid addiction, but several barriers stand in the way. The PDMP data are incomplete; for instance, a physician in Washington, D.C., can’t see whether a patient is also obtaining drugs in Maryland or Virginia. The records are not user friendly; and they need to be integrated into EHRs so doctors can access them both — without additional costs piled on by the vendors. It could be helpful if certain guidelines, like defaults for dosing and prescribing, were baked into the electronic records.

Policy Option 6: Access to addiction treatment and reducing stigma—There is a need to change how the country thinks about — and talks about — addiction and mental illness. Substance abuse treatment suffers when people with addiction are treated as criminals or deviants. Instead, substance abuse disorder should be treated as an illness, participants recommended. High deductibles in health plans, including Obamacare exchange plans, create another barrier to substance abuse treatment.

CONCLUSIONS:  I don’t really know how we got here but we are a country with a very very “deep bench”.  We know how to do things, so let’s put all of our resources together to solve this very troublesome problem.

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