How inmates who fight wildfires are later denied firefighting jobs - Axios
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How inmates who fight wildfires are later denied firefighting jobs

Firefighters battle flames north of L.A. in this 2008 photograph. Photo: Mike Meadows / AP

Many prisons offer educational and job training programs for inmates hoping to work in fields like cosmetology, firefighting or even law after serving their time. But due to complicated occupational licensing laws, which often automatically deny applicants with criminal histories, men and women who take advantage of these training programs are released from prison only to discover it is next to impossible to be hired for their acquired skills.

Why it matters: There are 4,000 inmate firefighters who have been battling the devastating wildfires in California for $1 an hour. However, they are likely never to land a firefighting job when they are released. Prisoner rights advocate and founder of Root and Rebound Katherine Katcher has written extensively about the challenge facing California's inmate firefighters. She told Axios "the 70% recidivism rate is not going to change" if nothing is done about these licensing laws. "What's the point of letting people out ... [if] there's still an invisible prison around them?"

It's not always an intentional discrimination against people with criminal histories, but "passivity and unintentionality," Katcher says. To become a firefighter, most departments require an EMT license, but EMT certifying boards have a pattern of denying applicants with a criminal history. Defenders of licensing regimes say they help screen out incompetent or poorly skilled potential employees and ensure minimum skill standards.

The big picture:

  • About 21% of California's 19 million workers hold licenses, according to the Little Hoover Commission.
  • "What we've seen is that not just people in reentry are impacted," Katcher says. "Prison programs across the county are training people for jobs, very well meaning, and then occupational licensing bars them from actually getting those jobs."
  • It's not just firefighters in California either, in some states, inmates can be trained as cosmetologists, but are unable to receive a cosmetology certification after their release. Ex-convicts often face barriers to construction, tree trimming and truck driving jobs. Women also face difficulty being hired for helping professions like home care aid.
  • These licensing laws disproportionally affect the lower-level jobs that inmates, who tend to have less formal education, are more likely to qualify for, Katcher says.
  • People of color with criminal histories are impacted most by licensing laws, according to studies by the National Employment Law Project.
  • Groups all sides of the political spectrum, from ACLU to the Heritage Foundation, have been advocating to change how occupational licensing laws work, according to Lee McGrath, the managing attorney at the conservative Institute for Justice.

Go deeper with Katcher's USA Today op-ed.

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At Walmart, watch out for EMMA

EMMA's point of view (Photo: Brain Corp.)

Walmart is moving fast into the autonomous age. Last week, it ordered 15 advanced self-driving semi-trucks from Tesla, and now Linkedin's Chip Cutter reports that a few stores are testing out EMMA, an autonomously driven floor scrubber. EMMA can careen through Walmart aisles at a whiplashing 2.5 miles an hour, evading unalert shoppers, stacks of cereal boxes along her way.

Why it matters: It's another lesson in the reality of robotics. Like iRobots and the Roomba, Brain Corp. started out with heady ideas of commercializing artificial intelligence, but has discovered that, at least for now, the technology and the market is much more prosaic.

EMMA is the invention of Brain Corp., a southern California robotics company that promotes the self-driving cleaner as an alternative to employing human janitors.

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Some U.S. wage growth — finally

In New York, where the minimum wage is rising (Photo: Spencer Platt / Getty)

A defining story of the era has been the malaise for workers. The U.S. economy and stock market have been healthy, and unemployment is at a stunning 4.1%, yet wages have been stagnant since the 1970s. Last year, workers in a few usually Democratic-voting manufacturing states struck back by tilting the election to Donald Trump.

What's new: Now, there's evidence that wages are up — and for blue-collar workers, not white-collar workers.

The details: In its latest issue, The Economist suggested that the decades-long misery may be over — median household income, it reported, is actually up the last three years. But at Indeed.com, the jobs listing site, chief economist Jed Kolko reports "no real wage gains for workers" for two years now.

So what's really happening? Speaking to Axios, Kolko says that wages in fact are up, and accelerating, but that it's specifically for "lower-wage jobs and for people with less education," he said.

That is not good news for white-collar workers, and the overall income picture remains flat. But in jobs in transportation, construction and mining, wages are up 3% to 4% this quarter on an annualized basis. "That's helping narrow some of the inequality gaps that widened in previous years," Kolko said.

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The big layoff in China

At Zhong Tian Steel in Changzhou (Photo: Kevin Frayer / Getty Images)

By the end of the year, some 1.8 million Chinese coal and steel workers will lose their jobs, victims of the government's shift to cleaner industries and a shutdown of small enterprises. To put that in perspective, the two industries employ just 192,000 workers in the U.S.

Why it matters: Ordinarily, China's leadership is most focused on social stability. The party always looks to avoid any outbreak of discontent that could threaten political calm. But now, the priority has shifted to producing higher-value, branded products sold internationally, and owning the future economy of electric and self-driving cars, advanced batteries, robotics and automation equipment.

That's why many of those coal and steel workers are receiving generous long-term payoffs. In one example, per the FT's Emily Feng, workers in Ma'anshan received early retirement worth $600 a month for 35 years.

Bill Bishop, author of the Axios China newsletter (sign up here), tells me that the turn is "all about re-orienting the bureaucracy to focus on greener, more balanced and sustainable development." He says it seemed to gain momentum after the 19th Communist Party Congress in October. The signal was a "very important change to one of its key guiding concepts," he said.

Bill's thought bubble: "The Party has changed the 'principal contradiction' that the Marxists in China believe defines society. Since 1981, near the start of the reform and opening era, the principal contradiction had been 'the ever-growing material and cultural needs of the people versus backward social production,' which effectively justified growth at all costs. For the Xi era, that contradiction is now 'between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people's ever-growing needs for a better life.' This puts much greater emphasis on the quality of how ordinary Chinese live."

He concludes: "It will be painful, it may fail, and it does not mean that China won't be exporting pollution and polluting industries while at the same time trying to clean up its own country."

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The death of the MBA

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

U.S. graduate business schools — once magnets for American and international students seeking a certain route to a high income — are in an existential crisis. They are losing droves of students who are balking at sky-high tuition and, in the case of international applicants, turned off by President Trump's politics.

Why it matters: The once-venerated MBA is going the way of the diminished law degree, pushed aside by tech education. Graduates of the top 25 or so MBA schools still command the elite Wall Street and corporate jobs they always did, but the hundreds of others are scrambling, and some schools are shutting down their programs. Survivors are often offering new touchy-feely degrees like "master of social innovation."

The background: Most top-ranked U.S. business schools are doing just fine. Sixteen of the top 25 reported a jump in MBA program applications for the 2016-2017 academic year, and four schools — Yale, Columbia, Carnegie Melon, and the University of Chicago — saw double-digit leaps, per Poets & Quants, a website that covers graduate business education.

The problem: In the more than 350 programs that didn't make the top ranks, rising tuition costs and smaller returns in the form of employment and income have forced a rethink of the traditional MBA degree.

  • Campus recruiting at lower-ranked schools is down: In a survey by MBA Career Services, the 30 schools ranked 21 to 50 reported a 42% decrease in recruiting by companies in 2016. In 2015, this same group reported an 83% recruiting increase.
  • The value of an MBA is uncertain: MBA grads are facing shifting expectations from employers with more options than ever. "Especially for someone who might be 25 or 30, they're leaving with an MBA, and there's a question from employers, 'Well, you've got an MBA, but what else can you do for me?'" said Michael Prebil of the think tank New America.
  • Programs are shutting down: Wake Forest, the University of Iowa, Virginia Tech and other schools have all recently discontinued their full-time MBA programs.

A big problem is declining international interest: The enrollment at some mid-tier MBA programs is more than half international students. But 51% of B schools report a decline in international enrollment in fall 2016, a 13% jump from 2015, according to the MBA Career Services survey.

This is across the board: International enrollment at some top 25 schools is down, per Poets & Quants. For example, 32% of Georgetown's B school applicant pool was international in the 2016-2017 academic year, compared with 43% the year before. The trend is even more pronounced in the lower-ranked schools.

Trump administration's immigration policies are one reason. According to a GMAC survey conducted in February, 67% of prospective international MBAers would rethink their eventual study destination if they thought they'd be unable to obtain a work visa following the completion of their degree.

  • This is especially so for the best candidates. More than half of international applicants who scored over 700 (out of a possible 800) on the standard GMAT test said they were less likely to study in the U.S. than elsewhere because of their view of the Trump administration.
  • Who wins: While only 32% of U.S. business schools reported an increase in international applicants last year, 76% of Canadian schools and 67% of European schools saw a jump last year.

Graduate education is a global market: "The return on investment calculation for the international student is even more amplified for many of them, coming from markets that are more price sensitive," Scott DeRue, dean of the business school at the University of Michigan, tells Axios. "And then you layer onto that some of the uncertainties around the job market, the visa issues, and things of that sort that are well covered in the media, and I think that adds to the anxieties that international students will and could have."

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Report: WeWork to lease retail space

WeWork Toronto. Photo: Arthur Mola

WeWork has earned a $20 billion valuation providing shared workspaces to start-up companies, and now the firm is exploring the idea of leasing retail space as well, The Real Deal reports. Unnamed sources tell the trade publication that "what WeWork's retail business could look like is still unclear," but that "extending the firm's co-working model — furnished spaces on short-term leases — to retailers is a possibility."

Why it matters: WeWork has justified its sky-high valuation on the promise that it has the data and design expertise to help businesses become radically more efficient in their use of office space. The move suggests that WeWork believes it can also make money helping retailers invent the brick-and-mortar store of the future.

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Bankrupt Toys "R" Us asks court to okay huge executive bonuses

Photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Bankrupt retailer Toys "R" Us disclosed in court papers that it paid CEO David Brandon a $2.8 million retention bonus just before filing for Chapter 11 protection in September. Moreover, it's now asking court approval to approve up to another $12 million in incentive bonuses for Brandon, who already receives a base salary of $3.7 million. The New Jersey-based company also is seeking up to another $20 million in incentive pay for 16 other top executives, as first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

  • Toys "R" Us statement: "This type of plan is standard practice for a company involved in a restructuring and in this case rewards team members at all levels of the company."

Oh, really? At all levels? Brandon could receive nearly $15 million that is related to a bankruptcy that it was his job to prevent from happening in the first place. Other senior execs could get over $1 million a piece. The other 3,805 employees get to share from what would be a $60 million pot, per court approval, which works out to less than $16,000 per head. Guess which group will be manning cash registers at 5pm on Thanksgiving Day, and which will be home with their families?

  • Note: Brandon, who did a remarkable job in a prior CEO role with Domino's. But he should be sticking around to fix Toys "R" Us out of a sense of obligation — obviously he knew there were problems upon joining in mid-2015 — not because he's being bribed.

Among those who will receive no bonuses are limited partners in the private equity funds that owned Toys "R" Us (although they did pull out some money earlier via fees). But perhaps that's appropriate, given that the retailer's struggles are due as much to over-leveraging as to competition from the likes of Amazon and Walmart.

Below is one of the related court documents, filed last week:

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Lyft gets permit to test self-driving cars on California roads

Josh Edelson / AP

Lyft is the latest company to get a permit from the to test self-driving cars on California's public roads, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles website.

Why it matters: Lyft earlier this year unveiled plans to build its own autonomous driving tech, as well as make its ride-hailing network available to other companies for testing. Getting the California permit suggests it's ready to begin putting self-driving cars on the road.

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Apple publishes self-driving car tech research

Richard Drew / AP

A new clue about Apple's work on autonomous driving technology has emerged in the form of a scientific paper authored by two of the company's engineers, as Reuters first noticed.

Why it matters: Apple is notorious for its secrecy and while rumors floated for years that it was working on an automotive project, its interest in the area wasn't confirmed until it obtained a permit to test self-driving cars in California earlier this year. This new paper is a departure from Apple's secretive culture in that it reveals some of the technological approaches it's developing.

Key tech: Apple's paper reveals that it's been working on software that lets LiDAR sensors perceive pedestrians and other road elements clearly without the help of cameras, and better than other approaches to do the same. LiDAR is among the most common sensors used for autonomous driving at the moment despite its high prices.

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SoftBank's ride-hail ambitions turn to India

Ola's mobile app. Photo: Ola

SoftBank is seeking to increase its stake in Indian ride-hail company Ola, in which it already owns 25%. According to The Financial Times, the Japanese giant is in talks to buy some or all of a 13% to 14% stake currently held by U.S.-based Tiger Global Management.

Bigger picture: SoftBank basically wants to own global ride-hail, having already invested in China's Didi Chuxing, Southeast Asia-focused Grab, Brazil's 99 and launching a multi-billion dollar tender offer for Uber shares.

SoftBank's investment in all the major players could further consolidation more likely (last year Uber sold its Chinese business to Didi).

  • Wrinkle: Ola recently added a requirement that shareholders could only buy stakes from others with approval from the founders and the company's board. It's unclear if they would permit SoftBank's purchase of Tiger Global's stake.
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A Silicon Valley startup is quietly taking over U.S. classrooms

Photo: Kiddom

Silicon Valley is determined to improve education by infusing it with technology. Its latest example is Kiddom, whose personalized learning software has quietly entered classrooms in 70% of U.S. school districts, according to the company.

Bottom line: Education is an obvious target for tech entrepreneurs—it has both mission and market size, especially as schools increasingly invest in tablets and lightweight laptops, amidst growing concerns over of the future of work.

The pitch: The promise of "personalized learning" is that students will be more successful if enabled to learn and work at their individual paces, along with regular guidance from teachers. Kiddom helps track each student's progress and can provide customized lesson materials. It also collects information on each student's skill level, learning pace and learning style.

  • "I think it's a data problem," says venture capitalist Keith Rabois, who led an investment in Kiddom for Khosla Ventures. He points out that medical records weren't digitized until recently, before which it was more difficult for patients and doctors to get a full understanding of a person's health. "There's a big promise in personalized learning, almost a Holy Grail."
  • Although Kiddom isn't currently making any money, CEO Ahsan Rizvi says that revenue generation likely will include charging use fees to school districts for new products (its currently free tools will remain free).
  • Kiddom says that once 20% of teachers in a school are using its software tools, it usually takes six to seven months for the rest of the school to adopt.

"Memorizing content is not what makes students successful," argues Abby Griffy, an instructional supervisor for Marshall County School District in Kentucky. Griffy's district began using Kiddom earlier this year as part of an effort to overhaul its approach and shift away from its previous focus on standardized tests. It also still uses software from some of Kiddom's competitors.

  • One of the district's main goals is to better prepare students for jobs and educational pursuits after high school—to "instill 21st Century skills in them," Griffy says.
  • One of Kiddom's most compelling features, for Griffy and Marshall County's school district, is the ability to match student assignments and work to education standards. For this, the company has partnered with a dozen content providers, such as Khan Academy and PBS Learning Media, and uses machine learning to analyze the school work.
  • Since it began these efforts, standardized tests scores have dropped, says Griffy, though administrators expected a dip as part of the transition.

But not all experts are convinced yet that tech-enabled personalized learning is an education panacea.

  • Personalized learning can require that teachers prepare more assignments and lesson plans, putting a strain on their already busy schedules.
  • Some experts are concerned that the heavy use of computers for lessons and assignments can deprive students of skills like group collaboration. Asked for comment, Kiddom tells Axios that it views technology as a way to enhance interactions between the student and teacher, not as a replacement for it.
  • The Carpe Diem Collegiate High School and Middle School in Yuma, Ariz. was initially praised for its rows of cubes with computers for each student that produced higher standardized tests scores. However, the school struggled to retain students. Silicon Valley-based AltSchool also recently said it's scaling back its school operations to instead focus on selling its software.
  • Kiddom, which has only raised $6.5 million in funding, faces several better-capitalized competitors, including Google Classroom, Summit Learning Platform (330 schools in 40 states, backed by Mark Zuckerberg's philanthropic organization), and AltSchool ($174 million raised).

Go deeper: Mother Jones recently looked into Summit Learning Platform and its parent company, a network of charter schools founded in 2003.

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