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    Summer energy costs present a mixed picture

    Gas prices are falling but electric bills are rising

    It's the dog days of summer, when in much of the U.S. air conditioners grind on, night and day, to keep occupants inside reasonably comfortable. The result is usually a hefty electric bill at the end of the month.

    But this summer has been a pleasant surprise, weather-wise. According to the Weather Channel, 2014 so far has been the coolest year since 1993, including some unseasonably cool days in June and July, when the AC units got a break.

    So consumers should be getting a break on those summer electric bills, right? Well, not entirely.

    Yes, consumers may be using less electricity, but statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), released last week, show consumers are paying more for it. Last year consumers paid a record 13.7 cents per killowatt hour for electricity, but in June the average rate climbed to a new record high, 14.3 cents.

    According to the Washington Post's analysis of the data, consumers in New York, Connecticut, Vermont and Alaska all paid more than 17 cents per killowatt hour – the highest in the nation. In a report earlier this month the Energy Information Administration (EIA) projected consumers' electricity costs would rise by 3.1% this year, making it the biggest one-year increase since 2008.

    The agency says the largest price increases are occurring in the Northeast. It predicts electricity costs will rise another 2.4% next year.

    Gasoline prices

    Gasoline prices, meanwhile, appear to be moving in the other direction, at least for now, giving motorists a slight break at the gasoline pump. The AAA Fuel Gauge Survey shows the national average price of self-serve regular has dropped 4 cents a gallon in the last week and 16 cents in the last month.

    That might be small consolation to consumers who suffered through an unexpected price spike in May and an additional increase in June, attributed to geopolitical turmoil, that pushed the price to an average $3.67 a gallon and well over $4 in several states.

    Michael Green, a spokesman for AAA, said this week that consumers are now paying the lowest average price at the pump since March 17. He notes that the price has dropped every day in July.

    Supply and demand

    What's behind the decline? It appears supply and demand is making more of an impact. The EIA reports American refineries have been working overtime in recent weeks, producing record volumes of motor fuel.

    Refinery inputs – the amount of crude oil processed – hit a record high of 16.8 million barrels per day in each of the past two weeks, exceeding the previous record from summer 2005.

    While supplies are increasing, demand is dropping. EIA says rising vehicle fuel economy standards are contributing to falling demand for gasoline.

    So why isn't the price lower? U.S. exports of refined gasoline continue to rise. Monthly exports have more than doubled since 2010, ensuring that retail prices don't fall too far below present levels.

    Some perspective

    Before we start thinking that $3.50 a gallon for gas is a low price, it is worth remembering that prices are up well over 100% in the last 5 years, at a time when inflation is barely 2%. In looking back through the ConsumerAffairs archives, we found this item from April 2006, headlined “Runaway prices at the pump.”

    Gasoline prices are closing in on $3 a gallon throughout the country as the national average price for regular unleaded gasoline is now $2.86 a gallon and rising. That's up 7 cents in just three days. In Wisconsin, pawn shops report brisk business as residents hock their goods to raise money for gas.

    One month ago regular unleaded gasoline sold for $2.51 a gallon. One year ago, regular unleaded averaged $2.22 a gallon.

    It provides a little perspective. After all, 2006 was not that long ago. If motorists were struggling to pay $2.86 for gasoline before the Great Recession, when unemployment was below 5%, you have to wonder how we're managing to pay $3.51 now.

    It's the dog days of summer, when in much of the U.S. air conditioners grind on, night and day, to keep occupants inside reasonably comfortable. The result...
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    Bank of America ordered to pay $1.3 billion, a much larger case still pending

    Feds said to be seeking $17 billion to settle "toxic mortgage" case

    Bank of America has been ordered to pay nearly $1.3 billion in penalties after a jury found it guilty of selling questionable mortgage loans to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

    But the normally eye-popping penalty is being overshadowed by one that is said to be in the final stages of negotiation, with federal prosecutors reportedly holding out for $17 billion in cash and givebacks.

    Consumers rate Bank of America Mortgages

    In the Fannie-Freddie case, New York U.S. District Court Judge Jed S. Rakoff imposed the penalty in a blistering 19-page opinion that said Bank of America's Countrywide mortgage lender "cut corners" and urged loan processors to write as many mortgages as fast as they could, setting the stage for "brazen fraud."

    Bank of America had turned aside an opportunity to settle the case and opted to take its chances by going to trial, a gamble that ended as most long shots do.

    In the larger case, The New York Times reports that prosecutors are demanding $17 billion, about $7 billion in the form of concessions to help struggling homeowners who took on mortgages that they were unable to afford. The bank reportedly was offering $14 billion and prosecutors -- emboldened by the $1.3 billion penalty -- were said to be sticking to the $17 billion figure.

    If an agreement isn't reached, the government vows to sue the bank, leaving observers to wonder if Bank of America will swallow hard and roll the dice again after coming up snake eyes on its earlier gamble.

    Talking tough

    Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Rakoff's harsh penalty and the jury's verdict "sent a loud and clear message to Wall Street that this kind of conduct will not be tolerated."

    Bharara noted that in determining the penalty amounts, the judge stated that the bank's accelerated loan process "was from start to finish the vehicle for a brazen fraud by the defendants, driven by a hunger for profits and oblivious to the harms thereby visited, not just on the immediate victims but also on the financial system as a whole."

    "The jury verdict and subsequent imposition of penalties make clear that mortgage fraud cannot be viewed as simply another cost of doing business in the financial world," Bharara said.

    Bank of America has been ordered to pay nearly $1.3 billion in penalties after a jury found it guilty of selling questionable mortgage loans to Fannie Mae ...
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    Airline industry sues TSA over passenger fees

    Court petition claims agency ignores mandated caps on "Sept. 11 security fee"

    This week, two airline industry trade organizations filed a court petition against the Transportation Security Administration – not to protest the agency's treatment of airline passengers, but the additional fees TSA is now imposing to pay for said treatment.

    The International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Airlines For America (A4A) filed their petition in D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. The petition, available in .pdf form here, “challenges TSA’s disregard of statutory text and clear congressional intent in improperly increasing fees for airline passengers.”

    Here's a summary: ever since its creation in 2001, the TSA has offset its costs by adding a “September 11 Security Fee” to airline tickets.

    The fee's amount is set by Congress. Last year, as part of a budgetary deal intended to reduce the deficit, Congress increased and simplified the TSA fee structure, with the new fees to come into force a year later, in July 2014.

    Double the price

    For a one-way flight, the old fee schedule charged $2.50 for a non-stop trip or $5 for a connecting flight. For round-trip tickets, the fee structure included a round-trip cap ensuring that the total TSA “Sep. 11” fee for a round-trip ticket is no more than double the price of a one-way maximum – $10, under the old system.

    But as of July 21, TSA is now supposed to charge a flat fee of $5.60 per one-way trip with the round-trip cap in place; the maximum TSA fee for a round trip within the U.S. would then be $11.20.

    The problem is that TSA is apparently ignoring the round-trip caps and charging that new $5.60 fee for layovers lasting four hours or more: if you take a one-way flight with two layover connections, you might be charged three times instead of only once.

    As the IATA and A4A's petition says: “instead of honoring congressional intent and simply accepting the increased fees on one-way trips authorized by the Budget Act, TSA attempts to conjure up even more fees by eliminating the round-trip cap.”

    The TSA is also charging these new fees on flights originating overseas, where the TSA does not operate. As the petition notes: “TSA has flouted the plain language of the statute by imposing fees on the domestic leg of trips that originate outside the United States.”

    On May 6, Sen. Patty Murphy and Rep. Paul Ryan raised similar concerns in a letter (here in .pdf) they sent to TSA Administrator John Pistole; the letter expressed concern over the fact that the TSA “outlined a new collection structure that appears to omit the total fee cap currently in place for all round-trip flights.”

    The TSA's own website says that the September 11 Security Fee “is now $5.60 per one-way trip in air transportation originating from an airport in the United States,”but says nothing about counting each layover as a separate trip.

    This week, two airline industry trade organizations filed a court petition against the Transportation Security Administration – not to protest the ag...
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      Asleep at the wheel: GM missed ignition complaints from car rental companies

      The company failed to connect the dots that should have alerted it to the problem

      In perhaps the most embarrassing revelation about General Motors' defective ignition-switch blunders to date, Bloomberg News reports that seven years before GM began the biggest wave of auto recalls in history, car rental companies had alerted it to the problem.

      Bloomberg reviewed documents it obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and found numerous instances in which rental car drivers were involved in accidents attributed to the faulty ignition switches.

      In one case, a consumer driving a Chevrolet Cobalt rented from Alamo was killed when the car went off a highway in good weather and overturned. The driver was wearing his seat belt but died when the air bags failed to deploy.

      Alamo wrote to GM, as did Enterprise. Avis and Hertz both had Cobalts in their fleets that were involved in accidents as well.

      There's no indication from the files whether GM followed through on the letters, Bloomberg said, but the documents add to the mounting evidence that GM failed for at least a decade to connect the dots that should have alerted it -- and federal safety regulators -- to the problem.

      GM has so far recalled more than 16 million cars that may contain the faulty switches, a figure that Bloomberg notes exceeds the 9.7 million vehicles the company sold in 2013.

      The complete story is available here.

      In perhaps the most embarrassing revelation about General Motors' defective ignition-switch blunders to date, Bloomberg News reports that seven years befor...
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      How to avoid getting smashed by a truck

      With accident rates rising drivers must stay on the defensive

      The June 7 fatal truck crash critically injuring comedian Tracy Morgan has served as a reminder to drivers just how dangerous the nation's highways can be. It's one thing when two cars collide. Advanced construction techniques and refined safety features have made cars safer and reduced fatal injuries.

      But when a car – no matter how well built – collides with a tractor trailer truck, all bets are off.

      The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reports a total of 3,514 people died in large truck crashes in 2012. Seventeen percent of these deaths were truck occupants, 67% were occupants of cars and other passenger vehicles, and 15% were pedestrians, bicyclists or motorcyclists.

      The death toll from truck accidents is rising. It was 12% higher in 2012 than in 2009, when it was lower than at any year since the collection of fatal crash data began in 1975.

      Perhaps that's understandable, since 2009 was in the depths of the Great Recession, when because of the economy, fewer trucks were on the road.

      In the Tracy Morgan accident the truck driver was charged in the accident, accused of violating laws against driving commercial trucks without proper rest. Morgan has since sued Walmart, which owned the truck and employed the driver.

      Whose fault?

      But trucking industry officials maintain that fewer than a third of truck accidents are the fault of the truck driver. They say motorists take unnecessary risks, getting too close to these behemoths or not realizing how long it takes a truck to come to a stop.

      However, it can't be argued that there continue to be unsafe vehicles – and unsafe drivers behind the wheel – in the fleet of trucks and buses on the nation's highways. Just last month the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) ordered a Minnesota bus company to immediately cease all passenger transportation operations after finding that the company was endangering the traveling public by failing to ensure the safety of its vehicles and drivers.

      What motorists can do

      While regulators are trying to get unsafe buses and trucks off the road, motorists still need to be wary when sharing a crowded Interstate with these much larger vehicles. There are a few things drivers can do to reduce chances of a close encounter with a tractor trailer.

      The first is to remember that trucks have very large blind spots. If you can't see the driver in the truck's side mirrors, then the driver can't see you either.

      That means keeping a safe distance when trailing a rig. The trucking industry recommends a distance of 20 car lengths, a space that is hardly every observed.

      Dangerous drafting

      In fact, in recent years many motorists have purposefully tailgated large trucks in a misguided attempt to save fuel. The theory is that by staying on a truck's tail, the wind's “draft” exerts a pull on the trailing car, requiring it to use less fuel.

      What these drivers don't take into account is that if the truck suddenly slows it is much harder to avoid rear-ending it, which is much more deadly than rear-ending another car.

      When approaching the rear of a truck, keep a safe distance until you are able to quickly get ahead of it and achieve a safe distance before pulling back over in front of the truck. Just as you shouldn't tailgate a truck, you certainly don't want the truck tailgating you.

      Remember that trucks are heavier and take longer to make a complete stop, so avoid cutting quickly in front of them. A fully loaded tractor-trailer takes a football field and both end zones to come to a complete stop when driving at highway speeds.

      Then, there's always the chance that the truck you are sharing the road with has a safety issue that could jeopardize other drivers. Something could always fall from the truck or it could lose tire tread.

      On busy Interstate highways, it's impossible to avoid tractor-trailer trucks. But the savvy driver will try to spend as little time close to them as possible.

      The June 7 fatal truck crash critically injuring comedian Tracy Morgan has served as a reminder to drivers just how dangerous the nation's highways can be....
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      Beware of claims promoting cosmetic stem cell procedures

      Claims are often unsubstantiated, sometimes fraudulent

      Are stem cells becoming the Next Big Thing in the world of cosmetics? The Web is full of ads for everything from stem cell breast enhancement to expensive facial creams that promise "anti-aging" miracles. 

      But the advertising claims are running far ahead of the scientific evidence for safety and effectiveness, according to a review in the August issue of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, the official medical journal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS).

      "Stem cells offer tremendous potential, but the marketplace is saturated with unsubstantiated and sometimes fraudulent claims that may place patients at risk," said Dr. Michael T. Longaker of Stanford University Medical Center.

      'Worrying advertisements'

      Longaker is concerned about the unregulated use of stem cells for unproven indications — including cosmetic procedures. While stem cell therapy "remains in its infancy," he wrote, "there are a growing number of cosmetic practitioners that are advertising minimally invasive, stem cell-based rejuvenation procedures."

      The article was prompted by "worrying advertisements" claiming benefits of stem cell procedures for facelifts, breast augmentation — even "stem cell vaginal rejuvenation."

      These ads claim benefits from procedures that have not undergone rigorous scientific evaluation — including potential risks related to stem cell and tissue processing and the effects of aging on stem cells, Longaker said.

      To date, just one stem cell procedure for cosmetic purpose has received FDA approval, the article notes. That product, designed to treat fine facial wrinkles, is undergoing extensive post-approval surveillance. Of more than 100 clinical trials being performed to evaluate fat-derived stem cells, only a handful are focusing on cosmetic treatments.

      "With plastic surgeons at the forefront of stem cell-based regenerative medicine, it is critically important that we provide an example of a rigorous approach to research, data collection, and advertising of stem cell therapies," Longaker said. "Stem cells offer tremendous potential for cosmetic applications, but we must be vigilant to avoid unscientific claims which may threaten this nascent field."

      Are stem cells becoming the Next Big Thing in the world of cosmetics? The Web is full of ads for everything from stem cell breast enhancement to expensive ...
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      Quaker settles class action challenging its "0g trans fat" claims

      The company said it "vigorously denies" the lawsuit's claims

      Quaker Oats Co. has agreed to pay $1.4 million to settle a class action lawsuit that claimed its Chewy Granola Bars contained "dangerous amounts" of trans-fats even though they were labeled as "trans-fat free," even though the company said in a court filing that it "vigorously denies" the allegations, Courthouse News Service reported.

      The settlement grows out of a case filed on behalf of Robert Chacanaca and Victor Guttmann, who said the granola bars were deceptively labeled as having "0g Trans Fat" when they in fact contain partially hydrogenated oil (PHO), which causes heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes, the plaintiffs claim.

      Under the settlement, "defendant agrees to remove PHOs by December 31, 2015 from the Oatmeal to Go and Instant Quaker Oatmeal Products that currently contain PHOs, and not to reintroduce PHOs into those products for a period of ten years," the plaintiffs' motion states.

      Quaker also agreed to not introduce PHOs into bars which do not already contain the oils, for the next ten years, according to the motion.

      Quaker Oats Co. has agreed to pay $1.4 million to settle a class action lawsuit that claimed its Chewy Granola Bars contained "dangerous amounts" of trans-...
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      Job cutting surges in July

      Much of it is due to cutbacks at Microsoft

      Job cuts shot to the second highest level of the year in July, the result of the unexpectedly large number of terminations announced by Microsoft.

      Outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas reports U.S.-based employers reported plans to reduce payrolls by 46,887 -- up 49% from June’s 31,434 job cuts, which was the fewest announced so far this year and 24% above the year-ago level.

      In fact, the only month to see more job cuts so far this year was May, when 52,961 pink slips were sent out. So far this year, employers have announced 292,921 job cuts down 1.3% from the first 7 months of 2013.

      Firings at Microsoft

      July job-cutting was dominated by Microsoft, which announced plans to reduce its workforce by as many as 18,000 -- the largest downsizing in the company’s history. It is also the largest announcement this year, surpassing fellow tech giant Hewlett-Packard’s announced plans to shed as many as 16,000 workers from its payroll.

      The combined cuts by H-P and Microsoft have helped make the computer industry the leading job-cut sector through July. Computer firms announced a total of 48,361 job cuts in the first seven months of 2014, 125% more than they recorded during the same period a year ago.

      “A large portion of the Microsoft job cuts were related to its acquisition of Nokia in 2013,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “However, like Hewlett-Packard, the tech giant is attempting to streamline in order to become more nimble and competitive in an industry that is constantly changing.”

      Challenger pointed out that the large job cuts in the computer industry are certainly not a sign of a stalling economy. “The fact is,” he noted, “these are companies that are trying to adjust to where the growth is occurring. The economy is on an upward trajectory, as evidenced by the fact that 18 of the 28 industries we track have seen job cuts decline this year. Even among those with increased job cuts, the year-to-date totals are relatively low by historical standards.”

      Jobless claims

      In other employment news, there was a big jump last week in the number of applications filed for first-time state unemployment benefits. The consensus of economists surveyed by Briefing.com was for a total of 310,000.

      Analysts say the weekly figure has fallen into a range of about 300,00 which would suggest the labor market has improved to the point where the economy will produce about 300,000 new jobs per month.

      The 4-week moving average, which lacks the volatility of the weekly figure and is considered a more accurate gauge of labor conditions, fell 3,500 to 297,250 -- the lowest level for since April 2006.

      The full jobless claims report is available on the Labor Department website.  

      Job cuts shot to the second highest level of the year in July, the result of the unexpectedly large number of terminations announced by Microsoft. Outplac...
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      SW Wisc Dairy Goat Products Coop recalls Raw Goat Milk Mild Cheddar Cheese

      The product may be contaminated with Shiga toxin

      SW Wisc Dairy Goat Products Coop of Mt. Sterling, Wis., is recalling Raw Milk Mild Cheddar Cheese Lot Code 103-114.

      The product may be contaminated with Shiga toxin producing E coli (STEC) O111:H8 bacteria.

      The company says no illnesses have been reported to date.

      The product sent through distributorship in Wisconsin and Georgia, and then to retail stores in the Midwest and Southwest.

      The cheese, packed as an 8-oz cryovac retail size piece with the code 103-114 on a sticker attached to the side, is all white in appearance and has a front and back separate label.

      The back label is a black and white nutrition and ingredient label and the front label is a yellow and blue colored label with the Mt. Sterling Coop Creamery brand name. to date."

      Consumers who purchased the recalled product may return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-608-734-3151.

      The product may be contaminated with Shiga toxin producing E coli (STEC) O111:H8 bacteria. The company says no illnesses have been reported to date. The...
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      Hummingbird Wholesale recalls Organic Raw Carob Powder

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Hummingbird Wholesale of Eugene, Ore., is recalling Organic Raw Carob Powder.

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      No illnesses have been reported to date.

      The recalled products, listed below, were sold to processors and retail outlets in Oregon, Washington and California, and to the end consumer in Oregon in 20-lb boxes and 5-lb bags from 5/22/14 - 7/24/14.

      HW Item #
      Lot #
      Sunfood UPC Code
      Exp Date
      C11014069, 14059803813-04429 86/5/2015, or
      11/2015
      C110-5#14189, 14177,
      14156, 14142
      N/ANo expiration date
      on these packages
      Consumers who have purchased the products listed above should not consume them, but discard them or return them to the place of purchase.

      Consumers with questions may contact Hummingbird Wholesale at 541-686-0921 ext 105, Monday – Friday from 8 am-4 pm PST.

      Hummingbird Wholesale of Eugene, Ore., is recalling Organic Raw Carob Powder. The product may be contaminated with Salmonella. No illnesses have been rep...
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      Kawasaki recalls Teryx4 recreational off-highway vehicles

      The vehicle's floor boards can allow a stick or other debris to break through

      Kawasaki Motors USA of Irvine, Calif., is recalling about 11,000 Teryx4 recreational off-highway vehicles.

      The vehicle's floor boards can allow a stick or other debris to break through and protrude into the foot rest area, posing an injury hazard to the operator and front passenger.

      The company has received four reports of debris breaking through floor boards, including two injuries to riders’ toes and thighs.

      The recalled vehicles are 2012 and 2013 Kawasaki Teryx4 750 4x4 recreational off-highway vehicles. The four-wheel drive vehicles have automobile-style controls, side-by-side seating for four people, four doors, a roll bar with hand holds and a cargo bed.

      The 2012 and 2013 models come in three different styles: non-EPS, EPS and EPS LE. The LE style has a roof and aluminum wheels. The 2012 models were sold in the colors blue, camouflage, green, red and yellow. The 2013 models were sold in the colors black, camouflage, green, red, white and yellow.

      The model name "Teryx4" is on the driver's side of the hood. For all colors of the EPS model except camouflage, "EPS" appears on the driver and passenger side cowling near the top front corner of the doors.

      On the EPS LE, "EPS" appears on the driver and passenger side cowling near top front corner of the doors and "LE" appears on the hood on the driver's side.

      The vehicles, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at Kawasaki dealers nationwide from October 2011, through July 2014, for about $13,400.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled vehicles and contact an authorized Kawasaki dealer to schedule a free repair, consisting of the installation of floor board guards.

      Consumers may contact Kawasaki toll-free at (866) 802-9381 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

      Kawasaki Motors USA of Irvine, Calif., is recalling about 11,000 Teryx4 recreational off-highway vehicles. The vehicle's floor boards can allow a stick or...
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      Senate report: For-profit colleges eat lion's share of Post-9/11 GI Bill

      Seven of the top ten schools under investigation for possible law violations

      When you read about the collapse of Corinthian Colleges and other for-profit educational institutions, you might wonder how they managed to stay in business for so long anyway.

      According to a July 30 report released by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, the answer appears to be, “Because the federal government keeps them in business, especially with its Post-9/11 GI Bill program for military veterans.”

      Harkin's 22-page report kicks off with this executive summary:

      Almost three years ago the HELP Committee determined that eight of the top 10 recipients of veterans’ educational benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits were large, publicly traded companies that operate for-profit colleges. ... Taxpayers continue to spend twice as much on average to send a veteran to a for-profit college although HELP Committee analysis shows that up to 66% of the overall students who enrolled at these for-profit colleges in 2008-09 withdrew without a degree or diploma. Additionally, some companies operating for-profit colleges appear to be increasingly dependent on Post-9/11 GI Bill funds to comply with federal requirements intended to ensure that these companies do not become overly reliant on federal education resources.

      What does “overly reliant on federal education resources” mean in this context? Harkin's report mentions the “90/10” rule: a for-profit college can have no more than 90% of its funding come from federal student aid.

      However, the report also says, “federal military educational benefits including Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits are not counted as federal financial aid and in fact are counted on the '10' side of the revenue calculation.” That's one reason private for-profit schools work so hard to target veterans: such students bring with them all the benefits of federal dollars and none of the accounting downsides.

      Winding down

      The report also mentioned that “amongst the top recipients” of this federal aid was Corinthian Colleges – the same Corinthian which, as of last June, was under investigation by 20 different states, in addition to the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Justice Department – eventualy leading to the Department of Education temporarily suspending all federal student aid to the schools. In early July, Corinthian announced its plan to sell off 85 of its campuses and wind down operations at 12 more.

      But surely, Corinthian is the only distasteful entry on the top-ten list, right?

      Not according to the report: “In all, seven of the eight companies are currently under investigation by state attorneys general or federal agencies for deceptive and misleading recruiting or other possible violations of federal law.”

      Those “eight companies” refer to the private, for-profit educational institutions on the top-federal-aid list. Of the ten schools listed among the recipients of this federal aid, the University of Maryland was the only public college, and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University the only private non-profit school.

      It's not that Harkin and the HELP committee have any objections to paying for veterans' educational benefits; the problem is that the feds are spending more money on veterans' educations than ever before and getting less in exchange:

      a disproportionate share of new Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits were flowing to for-profit colleges owned by large, publicly-traded corporations. This issue was of particular concern because, despite questionable outcomes for students attending these colleges, it was costing taxpayers more than twice as much to send a veteran to a for-profit college than it cost to send the same veteran to a public college.

      At the same time, veteran enrollment in public colleges declined in favor of enrollment at for-profit schools.

      Quite dismal

      Though the federal government currently does not keep track of how well GI Bill veterans perform in school, Harkin's report suggests those statistics are quite dismal: “overall student outcomes provided by the companies to the HELP Committee for students enrolling between 2008 and 2009 give ample reason for concern. At the for-profit colleges currently receiving the most benefits, up to 66% of students withdrew without a degree or diploma.”

      The report's conclusion prescribed some possible remedies for this problem:

      It is critical that the federal government establish and make public how servicemembers and veterans are faring throughout the higher education system. Further, it is essential that statutory provisions like [the] 90/10 rule be strengthened to better protect our veterans and servicemembers and properly account for all the federal dollars these schools are receiving from taxpayers and that additional steps be taken to address aggressive marketing.

      Meanwhile, if you are a current or future military veteran planning to use your GI Bill benefits to go to school, you're probably better off avoiding private for-profit schools in favor of private non-profits, community colleges or even good old State U.

      When you read about the collapse of Corinthian Colleges and other for-profit educational institutions, you might wonder how they managed to stay in busines...
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      Caution: Wiping data from your Android phone may not work

      A digital forensics team retrieved compromising data from factory-reset smartphones

      You probably know that before you sell or give away your old computer, smartphone or other data-recording communications device, you're supposed to “wipe it clean,” or get a factory reset — something to erase all of your data from it.

      But this month, the security software company Avast made a disturbing discovery about Android smartphones: apparently you can't wipe them clean. Even if the phones undergo a full factory reset, data can still be retrieved form them.

      A digital forensics team at Avast bought 20 used smartphones on eBay. All had been wiped clean, factory reset, or otherwise treated so that their original owners figured their data was no longer on them.

      Yet, from those 20 phones, the Avast team was able to extract more than 40,000 photos (including at least 250 nude selfies), hundreds of email and text messages, a completed loan application (with all the personal financial data therein), and the identities of four of the phones' previous owners—and remember, that's four from a pool of only 20 phones.

      Off the shelf

      What's even more frightening is that Avast's team didn't have to invent some fancy new digital forensics tools to get all this information; Avast's mobile division president Jude McColgan said his team only used readily available, off-the-shelf data-retreival tools.

      So, if you have an old Android which you want to replace, must you abandon all hope of selling or donating the old phone, and destroy it instead? Not exactly; there is a way to truly erase all your data, but it's extremely time-consuming (and not guaranteed 100 percent effective anyway).

      If you have an erased or factory reset phone and want to hobble any digital forensics team seeking to retrieve your data, your best best is to overwrite it with new data: save a bunch of innocuous stock photos or videos (they don't even have to be your own) onto the phone. Override your previous personal emails and messages by filling your phone with innocuous or even meaningless messages.

      To make an analogy: think of your phone or computer memory as a sheet of paper, and any saved data is like pencil-marks you made on it. You can use an eraser to wipe away your pencil-writings and make that paper “blank” again — but a person willing to take the time and effort could probably still look at that “blank” paper and reconstruct at least some of what you erased. However, reading your erased writings will be much harder, hopefully impossible, if you then write or at least scribble new pencil marks all over the site of your old erased ones.

      Of course, the main problem with this analogy is that you can look at that piece of paper and see at a glance whether or not your new pencil markings obscure the old ones, but unless you're a digital forensics expert you can't necessarily know whether all your previously erased data has been completely overwritten.

      You probably know that before you sell or give away your old computer, smartphone or other data-recording communications device, you're supposed to “...
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      New hepatitis C treatment shows 90% cure rate

      It involves FDA-approved drugs but the treatment requires an approval process

      There's good news for people who have hepatitis C, a contagious liver disease that ranges in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness that attacks the liver. Researchers from The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, the Texas Liver Institute and other health institutions have identifiedwhat they say is a potent treatment that cures the disease 9 out of 10 times.

      That's something of a breakthrough since current treatments have uncertain effectiveness and side effects.

      Hepatitis C results from infection with the hepatitis C virus (HCV), which is spread primarily through contact with the blood of an infected person. Hepatitis C can be either “acute” or “chronic.”

      Acute or chronic

      According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), acute hepatitis C virus infection is a short-term illness that occurs within the first 6 months after someone is exposed to the Hepatitis C virus. For most people, acute infection leads to chronic infection.

      Some people who are infected recover on their own, with no treatment. For others, recovery can be a long process.

      Treatment is important because the virus infection can last a lifetime and lead to serious liver problems, including cirrhosis or liver cancer.

      The Texas researchers say they have discovered the combination of the drugs sofosbuvir and simeprevir, sometimes mixed with ribavirin, cured 93% of patients in a 12 week trial. According to their study, published in the Lancet, patients were able to tolerate the treatment with few side effects.

      Oblivious

      The problem with hepatitis C is that many people have it but don't know it. It's estimated that it infects some 3.2 million people in the U.S. and even those who are aware of their infection face uncertainty. The researchers say cure rates for hepatitis C patients with cirrhosis have been lower than 50% and treatment carries the risk of some adverse side effects.

      But the latest trials with the drug cocktail may represent something of a game-changer.

      “We are now in the midst of a paradigm shift of moving away from complicated injection regimens that included interferon and often caused significant side effects with modest success rates,” said Dr. Eric Lawitz, clinical professor at the UT Health Science Center. “This trial provides a glimpse into the outcomes of sofosbuvir and simeprevir for treatment of hepatitis C.”

      How quickly before this treatment become available to patients? Both drugs are already approved by the FDA but are not yet approved together for this treatment. That will require an approval process.

      Important for Boomers

      This new treatment may be especially important to the aging Baby Boom population. The CDC has urged Boomers to get tested because 75% of the U.S. population believed to suffer from hepatitis C are part of that generation.

      The generation that experimented with drugs and pushed the boundaries of the sexual revolution, it turns out, is the one most at risk for this blood-transmitted disease.

      “A one-time blood test for hepatitis C should be on every Baby Boomer’s medical checklist,” CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden said in 2012. “The new recommendations can protect the health of an entire generation of Americans and save thousands of lives.”

      Previously the CDC only called for testing on individuals with certain known risk factors for hepatitis C infection. Risk-based screening will continue to be important, but is not sufficient alone, the agency said.

      Worldwide, the number of people with hepatitis C is estimated to be more than 150 million. It's a major cause of liver cirrhosis and liver cancer, with 350,000 to 500,000 deaths reported annually.

      There's good news for people who have hepatitis C, a contagious liver disease that ranges in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious,...
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      IIHS gives mixed ratings to small cars in small overlap front crash test

      Only 1 model wins a good rating while 6 are marginal or poor

      A dozen small cars were put through their paces by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) -- tests that included the small overlap front crash test.

      When the smoke had cleared, only 1 -- the Mini Cooper Countryman -- had earned a good rating.

      Among the others, the electric-powered Chevrolet Volt (with a gasoline engine “range extender”) was rated “acceptable,” while its battery-electric rival, the Nissan Leaf, was ranked “poor.” The Ford C-Max Hybrid, a small four-door wagon, earned an acceptable rating, and another small four-door wagon -- the gasoline-powered Mazda 5 -- was rated poor.

      Five models of small cars, all 2014s, earn an acceptable rating, two were ranked marginal and four earned poor ratings for occupant protection in a small overlap crash in the latest round of evaluations. The IIHS now has evaluated 32 small cars for small overlap front crash protection. Just 19 earned a good or acceptable rating; the other 13 were marginal or poor.

      A challenging test

      The small overlap test replicates what happens when the front corner of a vehicle collides with another vehicle or an object such as a tree or utility pole. In the test, 25% of a vehicle’s front end on the driver’s side strikes a rigid barrier at 40 mph.

      The test is more difficult than either the head-on crashes conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or the longstanding IIHS moderate overlap test. In the small overlap test, the main structures of the vehicle’s front-end crush zone are bypassed, making it hard for the vehicle to manage crash energy. The occupant compartment can collapse as a result.

      A “solid performance”

      “The Mini Cooper Countryman gave a solid performance,” said Joe Nolan, the Institute’s senior vice president for vehicle research. “The Countryman’s safety cage held up reasonably well. The safety belts and airbags worked together to control the test dummy’s movement, and injury measures indicate a low risk of any significant injuries in a real-world crash this severe.”

      The Countryman, introduced in 2011, is a larger four-door version of the two-door Mini Cooper. The small overlap rating for the Countryman doesn’t apply to the two-door model, which hasn’t been tested.

      Making the grade

      To earn the top rating of good, automakers need to focus on overall crash protection. That means an occupant compartment that resists intrusion, safety belts that prevent a driver from pitching too far forward and side curtain airbags that provide enough forward coverage to cushion a head at risk of hitting the dashboard or window frame or things outside the vehicle. Collapsing structures can knock front airbags and seats out of position, making the problem worse.

      “Collapse of the occupant compartment is the downfall for four small cars in this group, including the Fiat 500L, Mazda 5, Nissan Juke and Nissan Leaf,” Nolan explained. “A sturdy occupant compartment allows the restraint systems to do their job, absorbing energy and controlling occupant motion.”

      Volt and Leaf electrics

      Back in 2011, the Volt and Leaf were the first mainstream plug-in electric models to undergo IIHS crash test evaluations. The 2011 models earned top ratings in the moderate overlap front, side, head restraint and roof-strength evaluations. That’s still the case with the 2014 versions of both cars.

      “Electric vehicles have a unique challenge in the small overlap test because of their heavy batteries. The Volt performed reasonably well, earning an acceptable rating, while the Leaf struggled,” Nolan says.

      Driver space in the Volt was maintained reasonably well in the test, and injury measures taken from the dummy indicate a low risk of any significant injuries to a person in a similar crash.

      In the Leaf, the dummy seated at the steering wheel had a different experience. The Leaf chalked up as much as 16 inches of intrusion in the lower occupant compartment and 14 inches in the upper occupant compartment. The instrument panel, parking brake pedal and steering column were all pushed back toward the driver. Injuries to the left knee and left lower leg would be likely in a crash of this severity, and injuries to the left thigh would be possible.

      Award winners

      The Volt, which has a basic-rated optional forward collision warning system, is the only car in this test group to earn a 2014 TOP SAFETY PICK+ award. The C-Max Hybrid, Countryman, Mitsubishi Lancer and Scion FR-S and its twin the Subaru BRZ qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK, the Institute’s second-highest award. These models miss the “plus” award because they don’t have an available front crash prevention system.

      To qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK+, a vehicle must earn a good or acceptable rating for small overlap protection, a good rating in the Institute's other four tests, and a basic, advanced or superior rating for front crash prevention. To qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK, a vehicle must earn a good or acceptable rating for small overlap protection and a good rating in the other four tests.

      “Consumers in the market for a small car now have six models to consider on our list of 2014 TOP SAFETY PICK+ award winners, and an additional 13 that earn TOP SAFETY PICK,” said Nolan. “Consumers trading the inherent safety of a larger vehicle for the convenience or fuel economy of a small car should focus their search on these vehicles with state-of-the-art safety designs.”

      A dozen small cars were put through their paces by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), tests that included the small overlap front crash te....
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      Complaints about do-not-call violations, telemarketers are a growth industry

      Consumer survey finds that despite strict laws, scams and violations remain plentiful

      Consumers are steamed about a lot of things old and new, but old-fashioned telemarketers and do-not-call violations were the fastest-growing complaint category in 2013, according to an annual survey (pdf) of state and local consumer protection agencies conducted by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and the North American Consumer Protection Investigators (NACPI).

      “Despite the national do-not-call registry, strict rules concerning robocalls, and other protections, unwanted and fraudulent phone calls are still plaguing American consumers,” Susan Grant, Director of Consumer Protection at CFA.

      Technology is a major factor.

      “Internet phone service, Caller ID spoofing software, prepaid cell phones that scammers buy anonymously and discard, auto-dialers and other technology make it easy and inexpensive for crooks to contact U.S. consumers from anywhere in the world,” said Amber Capoun, NACPI President and a Legal Assistant in the Office of the State Banking Commission in Kansas.

      CFA and the NACPI surveyed general-purpose consumer protection agencies at the city, county and state level about the top, worst, and fastest-growing complaints in 2013. Forty agencies from twenty-three states responded.

      Top 10

      The survey also produced this list of the top 10 complaints in 2013: 

      1. Auto: Misrepresentations in advertising or sales of new and used cars, lemons, faulty repairs, leasing and towing disputes
      2. Home Improvement/Construction Shoddy work, failure to start or complete the job;
      3. Credit/Debt Billing and fee disputes, mortgage modifications and mortgage-related fraud, credit repair, debt relief services, predatory lending, illegal or abusive debt collection tactics;
      4. Retail Sales False advertising and other deceptive practices, defective merchandise, problems with rebates, coupons, gift cards and gift certificates, failure to deliver;
      5. Services Misrepresentations, shoddy work, failure to have required licenses, failure to perform;
      6. Utilities Service problems or billing disputes with phone, cable, satellite, Internet, electric and gas service;
      7. Landlord/Tenant Unhealthy or unsafe conditions, failure to make repairs or provide promised amenities, deposit and rent disputes, illegal eviction tactics;
      8. (tie) Home Solicitations Misrepresentations or failure to deliver in door-to-door, telemarketing or mail solicitations, do-not-call violations; Internet Sales misrepresentations or other deceptive practices, failure to deliver online purchases;
      9. Health Products/Services Misleading claims, unlicensed practitioners, failure to deliver; and
      10. Fraud Bogus sweepstakes and lotteries, work-at-home schemes, grant offers, fake check scams, imposter scams and other common frauds.

      Offshore threats

      One of the biggest challenges that the agencies faced was keeping up with the evolving marketplace, especially dealing with scammers targeting U.S. consumers from other countries. The technologies that are used to mask callers’ real identities and locations make telemarketing fraud and abuse particularly challenging for state and local consumer protection agencies to deal with, especially when the culprits are overseas.

      “Stepped up telemarketing enforcement and partnerships between federal, state and local agencies are crucial to investigating and prosecuting these cases,” said Capoun.

      © Stuart Miles - Fotolia.comConsumers are steamed about a lot of things old and new, but old-fashioned telemarketers and do-not-call violations were...
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      Feds shutter $100 million cramming scheme

      Defendants offer "free" gift cards to trick consumers into providing their wireless numbers

      A federal court has temporary closed down six companies accused of bilking consumers out of more than $100 million through wireless phone cramming, using promises of free gift cards.

      “This scheme demonstrates the kind of widespread harm that mobile phone cramming can inflict on American consumers,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “It also shows why we’ve made it a priority to crack down on this problem.”

      The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California issued a temporary restraining order against six companies and six individual defendants behind the scheme, halting the operations and freezing their assets pending litigation.

      In its complaint, the FTC charged that the defendants used deceptive practices, including fake websites with bogus offers of “freebies” or gift cards, to trick consumers into providing their mobile phone numbers. The defendants then placed monthly subscription fees for a variety of “services” on consumers’ mobile phone bills without their authorization.

      The practice, known as mobile cramming, relies on the fact that many consumers often don’t closely examine their monthly statements, or assume that charges are legitimate.

      The “services” described in the complaint consisted of subscriptions for text messages sent to consumers’ mobile phones that contained short celebrity gossip alerts, “fun facts,” horoscopes, and other items. The subscriptions typically cost consumers $9.99 or $14.99 per month and were set to renew automatically each month.

      According to the FTC’s complaint, the process of disputing the charges was frustrating and time-consuming for consumers. Some consumers were crammed for months before noticing the charges and, even after significant effort, were unable to obtain a full refund.

      According to documents filed in court by the FTC, the defendants continued cramming charges on to consumers’ mobile phone bills even after wireless carriers terminated their billing privileges. For example, two mobile carriers terminated MDK’s billing privileges because of its high refund rates and its association with deceptive websites. In spite of that, MDK continued cramming through use of a fictitious business name.

      The corporate defendants in the case are MDK Media Inc.; Tendenci Media LLC; Mindkontrol Industries LLC; Anacapa Media LLC; Bear Communications LLC; and Network One Commerce Inc.

      A federal court has temporary closed down six companies accused of bilking consumers out of more than $100 million through wireless phone cramming, using p...
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      An economic bounce-back

      The gross domestic product has rebounded in the second quarter

      Following word just a month ago that the economy shrank in the first quarter, the government is reporting a big turnaround for the second 3 months of the year.

      The Bureau of Economic Analysis says the gross domestic product (GDP) -- the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the United States -- increased at an annual rate of 4.0% in the second quarter expanded.   

      At the same time, the government revised its first-quarter figure to show a decline of 2.1% instead of the 2.9% initially-reported.

      It's important to realize that this second-quarter advance estimate is based on source information that is incomplete or subject to further revision. The government’s second estimate for the quarter, which will contain more complete data, will be released in about a month.

      The move upward

      BEA credits the increase in second quarter real GDP primarily to upturns in private inventory investment and in exports, an acceleration in personal consumption expenditures, an upturn in state and local government spending, an acceleration in nonresidential fixed investment, and an upturn in residential fixed investment that were partly offset by an acceleration in imports. Imports are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP.

      Prices on the rise

      The price index for gross domestic purchases, which measures prices paid by U.S. residents, increased 1.9% in the second quarter, compared with an increase of 1.4% in the first. Excluding food and energy prices, the index was up 1.7%, compared with an increase of 1.3% the previous quarter.

      The full GDP report is available on the BEA website.

      Following word just a month ago that the economy shrank in the first quarter, the government is reporting a big turnaround for the second 3 months of the y...
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      ADP sees slowdown in job creation during July

      Still, it's the fourth consecutive month of employment growth

      The economy continued to create private sector jobs in July, but not at the pace we saw in June.

      According to the ADP National Employment Report, employment increased by 218,000 jobs following the addition of 281,000 payroll positions the month before.

      The report, produced by payroll processor ADP in collaboration with Moody’s Analytics, is derived from ADP’s actual payroll data, which measures the change in total nonfarm private employment each month on a seasonally-adjusted basis.

      "The July employment gain was softer than June,” noted Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics, adding that it “remains consistent with a steadily improving job market. At the current pace of job growth unemployment will quickly decline. Layoffs are still receding and hiring and job openings are picking up. If current trends continue, the economy will return to full employment by late 2016.”

      Goods and services employment

      Jobs in the goods-producing sector rose by 16,000 jobs in July, down 27,000 from the 43,000 jobs gained in June. The construction industry added 12,000 jobs over the month, less than half last month’s gain, while, manufacturing added just 3,000 positions, less than one-third the number of jobs added in June.

      Service-providing employment was up by 202,000 jobs in July, well short of June's total of 238,000. Professional/ business services contributed 61,000 jobs, compared with 79,000 the month before.

      Trade/transportation/utilities grew by 52,000, down 4,000 from June, and the 9,000 new jobs added in financial activities was down 25% from last month’s number.

      "Although down from June, the July jobs number marks the fourth straight month of employment gains above 200,000,” said Carlos Rodriguez, president and chief executive officer of ADP.

      Size matters

      Payrolls for businesses with 49 or fewer employees increased by 84,000 in July; the June total was 126,000. Employment among medium-sized companies with 50-499 employees rose by 92,000, down 20,000 from June.

      Large companies -- those with 500 or more employees -- added 41,000 jobs, and companies with 500-999 employees hired 14,000 new workers.

      The economy continued to create private sector jobs in July, but not at the pace we saw in June. According to the ADP National Employment Report, employme...
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      Study warns U.S. standard of living is declining

      States need to do more to increase workforce productivity and participation, Accenture finds

      For the first time in history, the U.S. standard of living is poised to decline. An Accenture study predicts a 9% decline by 203o -- back to the level it was in 2000. The study identifies three major economic threats: an aging population, lower workforce participation and a flat or declining labor productivity growth rate.

      The Accenture report advocates that state governments develop and execute strategies to ensure a sufficient supply of talent to meet the country’s workforce demands. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, current workforce participation rates are at their lowest since 1977. 

      “For the first time in our nation’s history, the next generation may not be better off than their parents,” said Peter Hutchinson, who leads Accenture’s public service strategy for North America state, provincial and local business. “For decades people have come to expect our economy and way of life to continue to improve, not decline. Our standard of living hinges on harnessing a skilled workforce to power our economies.”

      Accenture identified three factors threatening the U.S. standard of living:

      • Population: As Baby Boomers retire, the working age population (15- to 64-years-old) is shrinking as a share of the total population. By 2030, the working age population could shrink by 9%, declining to a 1970 level.
      • Participation: There are not enough people of working-age actually working today, driven in part by youth unemployment (16- to 24-years-old).
      • Productivity: States are facing an unreliable growth rate in workforce productivity, which has fallen below 1% for five of the past 10 years and is now at one of its lowest points since 1960.

      Accenture’s analysis points to several factors affecting participation and productivity growth rates: Employers are not finding the skills they need for open positions, the long-term increase in high school and college graduation rates is forecast to end and more than half of recent college graduates consider themselves either under-employed or working in positions that do not require their college degrees.

      Key findings

      A growing dissatisfaction with government was one of the key factors found in the survey, which included citizens, employers, jobseekers and state employment officials across the country.

      The majority of citizens surveyed, 72%, said they have little or no trust in the ability of government to act quickly enough to address employment and skills issues.

      Only 18% of employers surveyed said they had sufficient access to the skills they require, and only 12% of job seekers say it is easy to find the right job.
      Among the job seekers, 58% cited a lack of access to job information as a major barrier to finding employment.

      Both job seekers (48%) and employers (56%) say they would value better matching of skills needed by employers against available jobs.

      A majority of employers (62%) do not think government is anticipating future skills demands.

      “States are in a battle for talent,” added Hutchinson. “To win that battle, states need strategies and tools that can increase workforce participation and accelerate productivity growth. And they must act now.”

      Recommendations 

      Accenture recommends that states provide real-time, skill-based information about jobs that are in high demand and promote the workforce qualifications needed to fill those jobs.

      States should also create talent supply pipelines that can provide employers, including government, with reliable access to the skills and competencies they need, Accenture said.

      States should offer every job seeker a personalized road map that shows him or her how to put unique talents to work to gain the skills and competencies needed for the desired job, the report recommends.

      “For most of our history, we could take talent for granted. It was plentiful,” Hutchinson said. “But in the future, it will be a scarcer resource. Strategies that worked in the past are not going to work in the future. States that act now and act decisively will have a competitive advantage in winning the battle for talent.”

      According to Accenture (NYSE:ACN), the U.S. standard of living is in danger of declining by 9 percent by 20301 – back to the level it was in 2000 &nd...
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