Rona Gilbert

Monday, 22 May 2006 12:28

Back to school

Going back to school can seem like a daunting task for working adults, especially those with children and other family commitments. But the challenges can be overcome with a little advance planning. Prospective students should understand and take advantage of the resources available to them, as well as talk with their employers and families about how this decision will impact them, according to Susan Brogden, director of academic support at the College of Mount St. Joseph.

“Schools offer a variety of resources to help boost the confidence level of someone returning to college later in life,” she says. “Adults have so many other competing demands on their time. Resolving to take advantage of these resources can really make a big difference in their success.”

Smart Business spoke with Brogden about the challenges adults face when returning to college and how those challenges can be overcome.

How can working professionals benefit from returning to college?
For some people, no matter how knowledgeable or talented they might be, their employer won’t find them qualified for advancement without that degree. Other adults are seeking to make themselves more marketable, and most everyone recognizes the financial incentive to obtaining a college degree.

What options are available to working professionals who are considering returning to college?
Working adults will find plenty of options to suit their individual needs. Someone who needs specific skills training might consider a certificate program, and associate (two-year) degrees are another possibility. But a bachelor’s (four-year) degree offers the greatest benefits, and with the variety of coursework options that are available, a bachelor’s is an achievable goal.

Thanks to technology, online courses and distance learning have become increasingly popular. While it’s possible to complete an entire degree online, a hybrid approach that combines classroom with online coursework offers the best combination of convenience and educational quality.

Increasingly, colleges are offering greater flexibility in terms of times and days when classes are offered, including evenings and weekends, which cater to working adults. Highly motivated adults might consider accelerated courses that allow them to earn credits while investing minimal time in the classroom. Many schools also offer credit for college-level learning that takes place outside the college or university setting. Similarly, students can earn credits by participating in the College Level Examination Program and ‘testing out’ of subjects in which they are already proficient.

How can returning students determine the right program for them?
Two good Web sites to help returning students sort their options are www.adultstudentcenter.com and www.collegeboard.com.

Prospective students should also research individual colleges and course offerings. The easiest way to do this is by visiting the Web sites of colleges that interest them, but local libraries also carry basic information about colleges all over the country. Once they’ve decided on a specific college, they should pay a personal visit and talk with folks in the admissions department, faculty and career center. Another option is to attend on-campus information sessions for adult students.

How can one overcome the challenges of going back to school while continuing to work either full- or part-time?
There are a few things that all adults should ask themselves before going back to school. The first is how much time they have to devote to obtaining their degree, including time spent in the classroom, study time and commuting.

Second, how supportive is their family and how will this decision impact them? Similarly, it’s important to consider their work situation and their employer’s degree of flexibility.

Working adults may need refresher courses, especially in areas like math or computer skills. If that’s the case, consider adult education classes through local high schools and community colleges. There are even free Web sites that can help adults assess their skills, such as www.math.com and www.mathpower.com.

Lastly, returning students should avail themselves of all the resources colleges and universities have to offer, including peer tutoring, math labs, writing centers and organized study groups.

How can working professionals cover the costs of going back to school?
The first step to obtaining financial aid is filing a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA is the gateway for any type of federal, state or campus-based aid, including both loans and grants. Prospective students can also take advantage of free online scholarship search services like www.fastweb.com to find out what grants or scholarships may be available. But beware of sites that charge for their services or promise that you’ll receive scholarships.

An important source of funding for working adults can be their employers. Returning students should always check to find out if they have an education reimbursement program.

SUSAN BROGDEN is director of academic support at the College of Mount St. Joseph. Reach her at (513) 244-4524 or Susan_Brogden@mail.msj.edu.

Monday, 15 May 2006 13:12

Online executive education technology

Today’s executive is busier than ever, thanks in part to a global economy that means more travel and work distributed across a variety of time zones. Many of these executives have the desire to obtain an MBA but find it difficult to manage within the traditional executive education system, creating a need for more flexible options, according to Anne Ferrante, director of the global leadership executive MBA program at the University of Texas at Dallas School of Management, which uses blended delivery combining classroom and online technologies.

“The combination of people working more hours and traveling for business has really created a need for online executive education,” she says. “People who want to pursue an advanced education simply can’t afford to take time off from work while also trying to balance family and personal commitments.”

Smart Business spoke with Ferrante about the online technology options available to professionals seeking an MBA and the unique benefits this technology brings to the MBA programs.

How do online courses differ from more traditional executive education programs?Traditional executive education programs are based on a modular delivery where the student takes three or four courses at once. The delivery is in the classroom, listening to and having face-to-face discussions with the instructor and other students.

Online programs are typically sequential so the student takes one course at a time. This allows students to master the subject matter before moving on to the next course. In a completely online scenario, students have little or no face-to-face interaction, but communicate via text- or audio-based technology and data sharing. In the blended delivery scenario, students meet and get to know each other and their instructors at periodic intervals then follow up using online communications technologies. Students still interact with other people; they just aren’t in the same physical location — similar to what happens when workers are not located with their customers or colleagues.

How can executives and other professionals use online technology to obtain an MBA?
The two main technology modes available for obtaining an MBA are either a completely online program that offers no face-to-face interaction, or a blended MBA program that combines both face-to-face and online course work. Blended programs offer executives and professionals all of the benefits of the traditional executive MBA programs - cohort-based classes, teamwork, networking — plus the flexibility and portability of online programs.

How do professionals benefit from online technology?
Online technology offers two main ingredients that traditional executive education programs do not: flexibility and portability. The programs are flexible because students can take courses at a time and in a place that makes more sense for them, allowing them to work around professional and personal commitments. These programs are also portable, allowing students to continue pursuing a degree even if they have to travel or relocate.

Students also learn a very valuable set of secondary skills: how to work effectively in a virtual team. More and more, people aren’t actually located in the same physical location as other team members or clients, yet they’re carrying on business, interacting and collaborating with each other. Online educational technology emulates today’s business practices and utilizes the very same tools that people are already using at work.

Lastly, because we aren’t geographically bound, online technology helps to build a richer, more diverse class. Participants can come from anywhere in the world and from different industry segments.

How would an executive use online technology when pursuing a Masters of Business Administration degree?
Some of the more interesting aspects of online technology include discussion forums and Web conferencing. Discussion forums allow for posting responses to thought-provoking questions on contemporary issues. Students have an opportunity to collect their thoughts and prepare their responses in a thoughtful way because they’re not being forced to give a response on the spot as they would in the classroom.

Web conferencing has become a very effective form of educational technology and allows for real-time sharing of data and collaboration among students and instructors. Instructors can demonstrate things online, providing students with a visual image to go along with the audio and text content.

What special skills or equipment is necessary for someone to use online technology for executive education?
Aside from the basic technology of a high-speed Internet connection and a personal computer that is multi-media ready, it is important to know that these programs aren’t for everybody. The two main make-or-break factors for online executive education — given that the admission criteria are met — are the student’s motivation and ability to manage his or her time effectively. However, in my experience, most successful professionals have mastered both of these skills already. So this technology is not really the primary issue, it’s the enabler.

ANNE FERRANTE is director of the global leadership executive MBA program at the University of Texas at Dallas School of Management. Reach her at (972) 883-6467 or ferrante@utdallas.edu.

Tuesday, 31 January 2006 06:55

Protecting your data

With so many opportunities for things to go wrong, businesses are playing Russian roulette if they haven’t implemented a plan for protecting essential business data. Even something as innocent as an unplugged server can wreak havoc on a business’s ability to respond to customers. Add computer viruses, human error, and natural and other disasters to the mix and the opportunity for lost data becomes very real.

Businesses of all sizes should take proactive steps to ensure their data is secure and able to be recovered in case of a disaster, says Ryan Stephens, president and CEO of Perpetual Technologies Inc.

Smart Business spoke with Stephens about the many ways businesses can lose data, the importance of protecting business data and how to go about it.

Why should companies be worried about protecting their data?
Business thrives on data. Most businesses cannot survive without it. Companies store intellectual property, financial information, customer information and other critical information in a database. All of this critical data facilitates effective daily operations.

If data is lost, or simply temporarily unavailable, consequences such as financial penalties, loss of productivity, loss of customers and ultimately loss of the business can occur. All equate to a decreased ROI, which is clearly unacceptable for any technology investment.

How can data be compromised or lost?
Data protection means much more than protecting data from unauthorized access. Consider user error, hardware failure, power failure, inadequate backups and natural disaster. These are only a few [of the] serious threats that exist. Consider the number of businesses affected by Hurricane Katrina that failed to have a disaster recovery plan in place. How will they rebuild their data?

What measures can companies take to protect their data, and how do these measures offer protection?
First, identify both authorized and unauthorized users of data. Then identify all possible avenues to access your data. Enforce strict security policies and monitor database activity routinely. Stay up-to-date with security threats, make sure you are proactive and have a remedy in place for violations.

Next, educate your users on security policies and how they can play their role in data protection. Finally, create a backup and recovery strategy. At a minimum, your strategy should include a standard backup and recovery plan, along with a disaster recovery plan.

Today, hardware technology and software solutions exist to provide data redundancy and quick recovery time. Service solutions exist that provide off-site data storage, off-site hosting and remote monitoring services. Most important, test your backup and recovery strategy. Many business have never tested a recovery and don’t know if it works, nor how to execute in the event of data loss.

How much do these measures cost?
Many factors determine the cost of these measures. Size of the database, criticality of the data and maximum acceptable database downtime are the main factors associated with the cost. The investment to protect your data can literally range across the board from a minimal investment to a small fortune.

Obviously, environments that must guarantee 24/7/365 uptime and near immediate recovery will require more detailed solutions. For these organizations, the investment is worth it, and a small fraction of the cost of the potential consequences.

What results will companies see from these measures?
Data protection is business protection. Technology is being used to maintain business stature and support growth. Data becomes business intelligence with customers and database end users as content.

In the long run, businesses should experience a much greater return on their technology investments. Home insurance is an investment most people are happy to make. A business owner is no more in the position to rebuild the business from scratch than the homeowner is financially able to rebuild a house that has burnt to the ground.

What qualities should a company look for in its technology partner?
Technology partners should be selected based on factors such as reputation, trust, past performance, known reliability, ability to respond and depth of technical staff.

Of course cost is a significant decision-making concern. However, when comparing cost, make sure you are comparing apples to apples. Lower cost may equate to lower quality or less experience. Neither can we assume that greater cost equals better quality. Value is balance of opportunity cost and actual cost; so you will have to do your homework.

Finally, request past performance information, case studies and client referrals - the prospective technology partner should be able and happy to provide them without hesitation.

Ryan Stephens is president and CEO of Perpetual Technologies Inc. Reach him at rstephens@perptech.com or (317) 824-0393.

Wednesday, 31 January 2007 19:00

Bariatric surgery

As obesity rates continue to climb in the U.S., the impact of obese employees can be felt in the workplace. They tend to use more sick time, have less energy at work and take more medications, contributing to employers’ overall health care costs.

Bariatric surgery has been proven effective in helping obese patients lose weight; however, not every health insurance plan provides coverage for the surgery. Often the surgery isn’t covered under general surgery, but employers can purchase riders specifically for bariatric surgery, according to Cathleen J. Crouse, RN, BSN, bariatric coordinator for the Akron General Medical Center Bariatric Center. “The problem ends up being a lack of communication between the employer and the employees,” she says. “If employees don’t let their employers know what they want in their health care coverage, they might miss out on coverage for this type of surgery.”

Smart Business spoke with Crouse about bariatric surgery and how employers and the workplace benefit when obese employees lose weight.

What is bariatric surgery?

Bariatric surgery is for the morbidly obese. It is actually a group of surgeries for weight loss. The two most prevalent types of surgeries are the Roux-en-y gastric bypass, where we create a stomach pouch and bypass part of the intestine, and the lap band where we create a smaller stomach pouch using a silicone band. The results are significant, with average weight loss for bypass patients of 30 pounds in one month, 60 pounds in six months and 100 pounds in one year. Lap band patients generally see a weight loss of one pound to two pounds per week.

Who should consider bariatric surgery?

Morbidly obese is loosely defined as being at least 100 pounds overweight. The actual determination is made by looking at a patient’s body mass index, which is a calculation of a person’s height and weight. Someone with a body mass index of 40 generally qualifies for the surgery.

What health benefits do people receive from bariatric surgery?

The health benefits of bariatric surgery are pretty exciting, primarily because many patients see results right away. The biggest health benefit is a reduction, if not a resolution, in co-morbid conditions, including high blood pressure, diabetes, sleep apnea and high cholesterol. It is so exciting to see a diabetic patient go home from surgery without the need for medications, including insulin. And, it’s not uncommon to see someone’s cholesterol level drop from 300 to 160 due to bariatric surgery.

Everyone sees some sort of benefits within one month. Many bariatric patients have problems with their knees due to the excess weight they’ve been carrying. After losing as little as 20 pounds, we see significant improvements in their ability to get around and their activity level.

How can bariatric surgery improve patients' performance in the workplace?

It has been documented that bariatric patients use less sick time and take fewer medications after having the surgery. This has an obvious impact on a company’s productivity, as well as possibly allowing the company to reduce its health care costs. In addition, employees who have had bariatric surgery are generally more active and energized at work since many of them had sleep problems like sleep apnea before the surgery, meaning they were unable to get a good night’s sleep.

How can employers obtain insurance coverage for bariatric surgery for their employees?

First, employers should have an open dialogue with their employees about what type of coverage they are most interested in and to determine if there is interest for bariatric surgery coverage. If interest exists, then employers should consider this when making their health care coverage choices.

However, employers should be wary of policies that include a coverage cap. I’ve seen several policies that include a $10,000 per member, per lifetime cap, which only covers about one-half of the cost of the surgery and leaves no coverage of any complications that may arise. This becomes cost-prohibitive for the employees and serves as a disincentive for them to have the surgery.

What are the risks associated with bariatric surgery?

Morbidly obese patients are at a higher risk for complications than the general population for any surgery. The two biggest risks are blood clots and breathing problems, including pneumonia. Fortunately, these are the two problems we can do the most to prevent by providing a blood thinner before surgery and having patients wear compression stockings during surgery to help circulation. Most bariatric programs also conduct sleep assessments on patients before surgery to detect problems such as sleep apnea, which can cause complications during surgery.

CATHLEEN J. CROUSE, RN, BSN, is the bariatric coordinator for the Akron General Medical Center Bariatric Center. Reach her at ccrouse@agmc.org or (330) 344-1950. More information on bariatric surgery can be found at www.akrongeneral.org/obesity.

Friday, 24 November 2006 19:00

Patient safety

While patient safety has always been important, the issue took on even more significance in the health care field in the late 1990s when the Institute of Medicine issued an alarming report regarding medical errors that lead to thousands of unnecessary patient injuries and deaths each year. That report led to the creation of new patient safety standards as well as specific action plans for health care organizations to follow in order to achieve those standards.

Patient safety has come a long way in the last decade or so; not only to the benefit of patients, but also to the benefit of helping to maintain health care costs, according to Cathy M. Ceccio, executive vice president and COO at Akron General Medical Center.

“Many health care organizations have really gone the extra mile to take practical, measurable steps to hardwire patient safety practices into their culture,” she says. “The result has been more emphasis on patient safety and outcomes than ever before.”

Smart Business spoke with Ceccio about the changes in patient safety standards and how patients benefit from those changes.

How do health care organizations monitor their patient safety measures?

A number of third-party organizations can help health care providers assess and improve their patient safety standards, including an organization called the Leapfrog Group. Leapfrog — a collaboration of large employers and health care purchasing consortiums that have an interest in patient safety — was initially created to address concerns about the cost of care. It found that the lack of good patient safety measures and systems were key factors in escalating costs. Through initial research, it identified three key patient safety initiatives: utilizing a computerized physician order entry system, evidenced-based hospital referrals, and 24/7 staffing by critical-care-trained physicians in intensive care units.

In addition, Leapfrog embraced 27 other safe practices identified by the National Quality Forum, including very practical measures such as having nurses read back verbal orders and ensuring that all medical personnel use standard abbreviations.

How have patient safety standards changed over the years?

Leapfrog and other patient safety organizations were influenced by the 1999 Institute of Medicine report called ‘To Err is Human.’ The report concluded that if we just implemented some basic changes in patient care, tens of thousands of lives — if not more — could be saved.

Patient safety has really moved from a global awareness issue to a very practical issue. The standards have more teeth to them now because tactics and an action plan were identified for each of the standards. It’s one thing to have awareness, but awareness is not the answer. You must have an action-oriented approach. As a result, patient safety today is more practical, more measurable and very data driven.

How can employers be sure that the hospitals included in their medical plans meet or exceed patient safety standards?

Many hospitals will put quality and patient safety information directly on their Web site, including Leapfrog and other quality indicators. It’s also very common for hospitals to include important patient safety information in their brochures or information about various procedures that are provided to patients. It’s a good indicator when a hospital makes an effort to educate its patients not only on what they need to know, but why such things are important and the reasons that safety precautions are in place.

Employers should look for designations from organizations that focus on patient safety like Leapfrog and the Joint Commission on Accredited Healthcare Organizations. This information should be visible on hospital and health care organizations’ Web sites, promotional materials and patient information materials.

How do patients benefit from patient safety standards?

A lot of very pragmatic and practical steps happen when an organization really embraces patient safety. One of the actions we take involves ‘red rules,’ which are rules that you adhere to, no matter what. For example, you never do anything with, to, or for a patient without having two ways to properly identify that patient. Other very practical patient safety tactics include creating and utilizing a structured way for any clinician to update a physician on a patient’s status and standardizing the use of abbreviations to reduce confusion in interpreting physicians’ orders. They may sound simple, but these types of actions help an organization to really hardwire safety practices into their culture.

CATHY M. CECCIO is executive vice president and COO at Akron General Medical Center, which recently was named as one of the top 50 acute-care hospitals in the country for meeting patient safety and quality standards. Reach her at (330) 344-1019 or cceccio@agmc.org.

Sunday, 29 October 2006 04:23

A silent disease

While most people think of the elderly when they think of osteoporosis, the disease is in fact a major public health threat to 55 percent of the people 50 years of age and older. It is estimated that 10 million people in the U.S. are living with the disease, while almost 34 million more have low bone mass, significantly increasing their risk of osteoporosis. People who weigh less than 127 pounds are considered at highest risk for developing osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis is one of today’s most under-diagnosed and under-treated diseases, says Michele Hatherill, M.D., a general orthopedic surgeon in private practice at Akron General Medical Center.

“Osteoporosis is a silent disease with no symptoms, making it that much more difficult to detect before it’s too late,” she says. “But the good news is, there is a simple and inexpensive test that can identify the presence of the disease, allowing for effective treatment to greatly reduce the chance of a bone fracture.

Smart Business spoke with Dr. Hatherill about osteoporosis and how the disease can be detected and treated.

What is osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is the most common metabolic bone disease. It is characterized by low bone mass and increased bone porosity. However, the real problem with osteoporosis is that the disease causes fragile bones and an increased risk of bone fractures. What would otherwise be a minor injury will often result in a broken bone, causing pain, suffering and potentially long-term disability.

How can osteoporosis be prevented?
Loss of bone mass is a normal part of the aging process. Everyone begins to experience some levels of loss after the age of 30. The first thing that people should do to reduce their risk of osteoporosis is to ensure they are getting enough calcium and vitamin D in their diet from an early age. Many young people, especially women, don’t ever reach their maximum bone density because of an inadequate diet, making them especially vulnerable as they get older.

The best way to prevent osteoporosis is to eat a balanced diet with plenty of calcium and vitamin D, participate in weight-baring exercises such as walking or running, maintain a smoke-free lifestyle, and avoid excessive amounts of alcohol. Most people should consider taking calcium and vitamin D supplements, especially women, who have a much higher risk of osteoporosis than men.

How can osteoporosis be managed?
Once someone has been diagnosed with osteoporosis, it is essential that he or she increase the amount of calcium and vitamin D through diet supplements as well as incorporate weight-bearing exercises into a workout routine. There are also several prescription medications available that can help stabilize and even rebuild bone mass loss. These medications will greatly reduce the risk of fractures. Those who detect the disease early have the best results from treatment.

How is osteoporosis detected?
Unfortunately, most people don’t find out that they have osteoporosis until after they’ve fractured or broken a bone — and then it’s more difficult to treat because the disease has already progressed to a point that makes them vulnerable to future breaks and fractures. Treatment is most successful if the disease is detected in its early stages.

A simple and inexpensive test can provide people with a baseline and allow them to track their bone density over time. The test, known as a DEXA scan, takes just 5 to 10 minutes, is painless and is similar to an X-ray, but with less X-ray exposure. Many insurance companies will cover the cost of the test — especially for those who are considered at-risk for osteoporosis — and Medicare covers the cost for anyone over the age of 65.

If more people had a DEXA scan done, we could go a long way toward preventing osteoporosis. This test allows a patient and doctor to monitor bone density and make decisions on treatment, including medication, as necessary, to help reduce the risk of osteoporosis.

How can businesses help their employees learn more about or even prevent osteoporosis?
Our best prevention tools are education and early detection. Employers can help by providing information to their employees about osteoporosis and the DEXA scan. But the best way employers can help is to encourage their insurance companies to reimburse employees for the DEXA scan or look for a health plan that pays for this important test.

MICHELE HATHERHILL, M.D., is a general orthopedic surgeon in private practice at Akron General Medical Center. Reach her at (330) 344-1980 or mlh7611@aol.com.

Friday, 20 October 2006 13:08

The emergency injunction

When most people think of a determination by a court, they think of a final judgment at the end of a trial. However, courts also have the authority to take action before the final disposition of a case when it is determined that action is necessary to preserve the status quo while the litigation proceeds toward a trial. This action is known as a temporary restraining order or an emergency injunction.

A business should consider use of an emergency injunction when another party is breaching an obligation or violating a right of the business that is likely to cause irreparable harm, which is generally considered to be harm that cannot be corrected with a payment of money, according to Steven G. Hall, a partner at Gambrell & Stolz LLP.

“Consider a lawsuit over ownership of a unique piece of art,” he says. “If one of the parties has possession of the art and announces an intention to sell the art, the other party may well be able to pursue an emergency injunction to prevent the sale and preserve the status quo until the question of rightful ownership can be resolved.”

Smart Business spoke with Hall about how and why a business might consider obtaining emergency injunctive relief.

Why would a business consider using an emergency injunction?
Some of the more common business scenarios for using an injunction include preventing a former employee from competing against your business in violation of a noncompete agreement; preventing a supplier from improperly withholding materials; and preventing use of intellectual property such as patented technology, copyrighted materials or trademarks and trade dress.

How does a business obtain emergency injunctive relief?
It can be difficult to obtain ‘emergency’ injunctive relief because the court requires a showing of several factors before it will act. Our legal system prefers to wait until each party has had an opportunity to fully develop its case and present it at trial before taking any action. Before a court will bypass this preference and take emergency action, it will require a real showing of right and need.

Generally, the factors that need to be demonstrated to obtain an emergency injunction are a substantial likelihood that the business will ultimately prevail on the merits; a showing that there will be irreparable harm to the business if emergency relief is not granted; and that the balancing of the hardships that will be caused by injunction favors the grant of the injunction.

Are there limits on a court’s ability to grant injunctive relief?
The courts have broad authority to order what they believe is necessary to protect the status quo, but should do no more than is necessary and should fashion the relief in the manner that is least intrusive. For example, in the case of a raw material supplier who seeks to breach its contract and withhold materials that are immediately necessary, a court might require continuing shipments, but only until an alternative supplier can be obtained.

What types of injunctive relief are available prior to the trial of a case?
Two types of pre-disposition relief are a temporary restraining order, which is usually obtained first in a more truncated procedure; and a preliminary injunction that involves a more detailed presentation of evidence.

A temporary restraining order is usually sought and obtained where there is an immediate need to preserve the status quo. The circumstances usually do not allow for full notice of what is coming to the other side and therefore the relief is generally limited to 30 days. If the party seeking the emergency relief believes that the injunction is needed for longer, it must then pursue a preliminary injunction, which can last until final disposition of the case on the merits.

Both the temporary restraining order and the preliminary injunction must be sought within a formal lawsuit.

What should a business consider before asking its lawyers to pursue emergency injunctive relief?
The decision to pursue injunctive relief must be made with careful consideration of multiple factors, including: the merits and size of the underlying dispute; the likelihood that the request for injunctive relief will be granted; the additional legal time and expense that will be required to convince the court to act on an emergency basis prior to the end of the trial; and the effect that the grant or denial of the requested injunction will have on the case.

STEVEN HALL is a partner in the Litigation Department at Gambrell & Stolz LLP. He is significantly involved in cases on behalf of clients who seek to obtain or defend against claims for injunctive relief. Reach him at (404) 221-6515 or shall@gambrell.com.

Wednesday, 30 August 2006 19:34

Workforce satisfaction

The confidence of Florida employees held steady in June, according to the latest workforce survey conducted for Spherion Corp. by Harris Interactive. A slight drop in worker confidence in the overall economy was offset by increases in personal confidence indicators, such as their ability to find new jobs and the future of their current employers. More than three-quarters of Florida workers are reporting confidence in the security of their jobs, according to Steve Wajda, Spherion district director.

“It’s pretty remarkable that 68 percent of Florida workers surveyed report confidence in their ability to find new jobs — an increase of 11 percentage points over May,” he says. “But with fast job growth and the low unemployment rate we’re continuing to experience in Florida, it’s not surprising. Conversely, if you look at the overall U.S. workforce, 56 percent report confidence in their ability to find new jobs — and that’s down by four points from May.”

Smart Business spoke with Wajda about the latest Florida workforce survey and how employees are feeling about their jobs.

How confident are Florida workers in the overall economy?
The number of Florida workers who believe the economy is getting stronger dropped to 13 percent in June — nine percentage points below May’s level. Those who believe the economy is remaining the same rose by five points to 46 percent — almost half. This tracks somewhat with overall U.S. numbers, which declined by four percentage points in June to 19 percent reporting confidence that the economy is strengthening and 38 percent believing that it is remaining the same.

Confidence in the overall economy is just one indicator we measure, however, and some of the other indicators have increased to offset this drop — most notably workers’ confidence in their ability to find new jobs should they choose to do so.

How do Florida workers feel about job security?
Seventy-six percent of workers in Florida are confident in the security of their jobs, which compares closely to 78 percent of the overall U.S. workforce.

Another positive indicator is that the number of Florida workers who do not believe their jobs are secure declined by four percentage points, and those who don’t feel strongly one way or the other increased by 10 points to 18 percent. In other words, the shift is toward greater optimism. We’re seeing this in terms of worker confidence in their employers’ futures as well.

Why do you think employees feel more confident about their employers’ futures?
Again, that could point to strong job growth and an unemployment rate in Florida that is much lower than the national average. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent state data, the Florida unemployment rate was just 3.2 percent in May, as compared to 4.6 percent for the overall United States. That’s certainly a cause for confidence among the Florida workforce.

How do Florida employees feel about the availability of jobs, as compared to the overall U.S. workforce?
Florida workers are more optimistic than their U.S. counterparts by more than 10 percentage points. In Florida, three-quarters of workers (73 percent) believe that job availability is strong or stable, compared to 61 percent of the overall U.S. workforce.

Where does this data come from?
These results are based on our June 2006 survey of working adults in Florida, as summarized in the June Spherion Employment Report for Florida. The surveys are conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of Spherion Corp. and are part of the Spherion Emerging Work Force Series of employment surveys. Harris Interactive is widely known for The Harris Poll, one of the longest-running independent opinion polls, and for pioneering online market research methods.

How should area businesses and Florida employers react to these results?
Our recent surveys indicate that worker confidence continues to rise, placing them in the driver’s seat when it comes to employers filling open positions.

With a greater demand to fill jobs than there is a supply of available workers, employees are gaining a better sense of their value in the tighter labor market. We’re seeing this in areas such as customer service and call centers as well as in requests for financial analysts.

In times like these, employers should be prepared to make some adjustments in compensation, benefits, and work environment if they want to attract — and retain — the best talent in the market.

STEVE WAJDA is a district director at Spherion Corp. Reach him at (813) 623-6399 or stevewajda@spherion.com.

Wednesday, 30 August 2006 02:18

Estate taxes

There’s plenty of talk about estate taxes these days. While your estate is directly liable for paying any estate taxes when you die, all recipients of assets have a responsibility to ensure that taxes are paid on the assets that they receive, so the heirs are usually burdened by the estate tax. However, with proper planning, the estate tax liability can be greatly reduced or possibly eliminated, says David Neal, the tax director at Whitley Penn LLP, CPAs & Professional Consultants.

“In order to reduce your estate tax liability, it’s critical to work with an adviser with experience in gift giving and estate planning,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Neal about the estate tax, how it’s calculated and ways to mitigate the estate tax liability.

What is the estate tax?
The estate tax is the tax on the actual transfer of assets from the decedent to another party.

Basically, an estate tax is determined by calculating all of the property that the decedent had ownership, control or the complete use of. The most commonly overlooked asset is life insurance. This is particularly true for younger people who don’t think they have an estate large enough to qualify for the estate tax, yet they have a large life insurance policy. If something happens, it becomes a taxable estate.

The estate tax is based on a snapshot on the date of death, or you can use an alternative date of six months past the date of death, whichever date is in your favor.

For example, if a person died Sept. 1 owning a valuable piece of property in New Orleans that was hit by a hurricane on Nov. 1, the value of the property would be determined on Sept. 1 — the day the person died. In that case, you’d want to take the alternative six months later due to the decrease in the asset value. By the same token, if the person owned stock that was worth a certain value at the date of death but was worth twice as much five days later, you’d want to use the value of the stock at the date of the death so those profits would be excluded from the estate.

How can one reduce exposure to the estate tax?
There are exemptions to mitigate the tax liability. Every person is granted a lifetime exemption that currently stands at $2 million. Proper planning can help ensure that the exemption is fully utilized.

For example, in the case of a married couple in which one spouse had $3 million in assets and the other spouse had none, if the spouse that had no assets dies first, there will be no utilization of that person’s lifetime credit. When the second spouse dies, that person would have $1 million more than the exemption and the estate would have to pay $450,000 in estate taxes. With proper planning, perhaps utilizing a trust, this couple could have reduced its exposure to the estate tax. Not taking full advantage of both spouses’ exemptions is probably the most common estate planning mistake.

There are other deductions such as the administration expenses of the estate, including the funeral expenses.

There’s also what I call ‘winning by attrition,’ which allows individuals to give $12,000 annually per person to their heirs. There are some rules governing these gifts, but this allows individuals to significantly pare down their estate in an effort to reduce their estate tax liability.

Lastly, individuals with large qualified plans and IRAs should be sure to consult with an experienced tax adviser, as these can be particularly tricky in estate planning.

How can someone determine whether or not they will owe an estate tax?
Basically, you just need to add up everything you own and subtract everything that you owe. But keep in mind a few things that are often forgotten like the face value of any life insurance and the full value of assets. You need to look at the fair market value of the assets and determine by what a willing buyer and a willing seller would agree to as a sales price.

Isn’t there talk that Congress is going to repeal the estate tax?
Currently, the estate tax exemption is set to increase in 2008 and 2009. The tax is due to disappear in 2010, but I believe it’s highly unlikely that Congress will allow that to happen. Most commentators believe the exemption will rise to $5 million, coupled with a reduction in the tax rate.

DAVID NEAL is the tax director at Whitley Penn LLP, CPAs & Professional Consultants. Reach him at (817) 258-9100 or david@wpcpa.com.

Tuesday, 29 August 2006 10:54

Continuing education

Going back to college as an adult can be a great opportunity to advance in a current career or kick-start a new one.

While working adults face some additional challenges when juggling school and work, taking the plunge to head back to college — and paying for it — as an adult has never been easier, according to Kathy Kelly, director of student administrative services at the College of Mount St. Joseph.

“Many adults don’t realize the myriad of financial aid options available to them when going back to school,” she says. “From employer tuition reimbursement programs, to financial aid just for adults going back to school, to payment deferment and other creative financing programs offered through the colleges themselves, adults have so many options.”

Smart Business spoke with Kelly about financial aid opportunities available to adults going back to college and the best ways for adults to research their options.

Where can adults find out about financial aid offered to part-time students?
The best place to start is the college or university they plan to attend. While telephone calls and personal visits are certainly acceptable, a lot of the legwork can be done online. Conducting the research online is an easy way to compare several programs and their financial aid process side-by-side. Also, if a college is working specifically with a bank or lending institution, there will usually be a link to that information right on the school’s Web site.

What are some options that adults have for financing their education?
Adults have a lot of the same options as traditional students, including grants, loans, federal and state money, and institutional dollars. In fact, many schools are actively recruiting adult and part-time students by offering scholarship money specifically for adult students.

Adult students should be sure to explore employer-sponsored tuition reimbursement programs as well as deferred payment plans offered through the college. Those programs allow students to spread out the costs of their education. Alternative loans offered through commercial lending institutions also mimic the terms and benefits of a government loan, including deferred or minimum payments.

How can adult students tell if the college is attuned to their needs, and what services should adults expect from a college’s financial aid office?
At a minimum, colleges should offer convenient services like extended hours and well-designed Web sites allowing students to register, pay their tuition, check their grades, and do more online. Another factor to consider is the availability to connect one-on-one with someone in the financial aid or admissions office, whether it’s in person, by phone or by e-mail.

The college should be responsive every step of the way, making the process easier for students. Of course, if an adult plans to continue working while going back to school, it’s also important to make sure the school offers a convenient class schedule, including weekend or evening classes.

How can employees best maximize their employer’s tuition-reimbursement program?
While benefits vary from company to company, a lot of companies do offer some type of tuition reimbursement. Employees should review the fine print of their company’s program and familiarize themselves with the various limits and cap. It’s also important to find out if there is any type of grade requirement for reimbursement.

Adults should also fully understand the payment schedule, as many employers reimburse the student after the course is completed so the student may need to cover the costs up front.

How can adults take advantage of financial aid options and special services to finance their education?
Many schools, including Mount St. Joseph, provide tuition deferment plans for a nominal fee, allowing students to pay a small percentage of their tuition and deferring the final payment until after the course has been completed. This allows students who are taking advantage of an employer tuition-reimbursement program to receive payment before paying their bill.

Adult students should be sure to explore whether the school they’re considering offers scholarships specifically for adults or those going back to school after an extended absence. Adults should also inquire whether the college offers a guaranteed tuition package that guarantees the price of obtaining the degree within a specific time period, protecting the student from tuition increases along the way.

KATHY KELLY is the director of student administrative services at the College of Mount St. Joseph. Reach her at (513) 244-4418 or kathy_kelly@mail.msj.edu.