Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Print Geek Alert!: A 360-Degree Video of The New York Times Being Printed

The New York Times published a two-minute 360-degree video today of its own printing plant in action.

The video doesn't try to be comprehensive, instead focusing on arresting shots that show the scale and sophistication of the operation -- such as a robotic crane transporting a massive roll of newsprint from storage and a web of already-printed paper picking up color as it zips through the press.

Plus what looks like an amusement-park ride for newspapers, which transports the printed product from the pressroom, then automatically bundles, palletizes, shrink-wraps, and loads into on to a delivery truck.

"The presses print 300,000 to 800,000 papers daily," the video tells us. "Most nights, the presses start before 11 p.m. and finish printing all editions before 3 a.m."

I've been in a lot of pressrooms, and I've never seen as much automation as The Times has.

Nor have I seen working press operators who weren't sporting earmuff-style hearing protection. I don't think The Times employees were even wearing the little foam in-ear inserts.  Perhaps the press is unusually quiet, or perhaps The Times' occupational-safety rules are more lax than those of magazine printers.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Bang-Up Job: USPS Blames New Employees for Rising Motor Vehicle Accidents

The increasing use of non-career letter carriers has caused a steady rise in motor vehicle accidents and liability, postal officials said this week.

The U.S. Postal Service’s liability for motor vehicle tort claims (paid to victims of accidents) rose from $48 million in Fiscal Year 2015 to $88 million in FY2016, the Postal Regulatory Commission recently pointed out.

In responding to that observation on Thursday, the Postal Service explained: “Since the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreements between the Postal Service and several employee unions, which expanded the role of non-career mail delivery drivers, there has been an increase in the number of motor vehicle accidents (MVAs).”

“The number of MVAs attributed to career carriers has remained largely flat, while those attributed to their non-career counterparts has increased out of proportion to the percentage of the carrier workforce that they occupy.” The 2011 agreements created the non-career City Carrier Assistant (CCA) and Rural Carrier Associate (RCA) positions, which last year combined for one-fourth of the USPS’s carrier workhours.

The cost of saving money
The lower pay, paltry benefits, and more flexible schedules of the 70,000 or so CCAs and RCAs are probably saving the Postal Service at least $500 million in annual compensation. But the inexperienced employees have also meant more mis-delivered mail, employee injuries, lower productivity, higher turnover, and ballooning recruiting and training costs, according to the USPS.

The Postal Service has not provided specifics on the number of motor-vehicle accidents or what proportion of accidents or tort claims are caused by non-career employees.

The USPS told the PRC earlier this year that its FY2017 strategy for reducing motor-vehicle accidents includes “redesigning the driver training program to expand opportunities for new drivers to become more skillful. Testing will be added to the program to assess the suitability of each employee to perform duties as a professional driver.”

Related articles

 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Turnover Rising Among Non-Career Postal Workers

USPS is looking for answers to rising turnover.
Plagued by increasing turnover among non-career employees, postal officials are trying to stem the tide with new management incentives and an overhauled orientation program.

The average annual turnover rate among non-career employees rose from 38.69% in FY2015 to 42.82% last year, the U.S. Postal Service reported earlier this month. Postal officials had set a target of 34.8% for FY2016.

Turnover was worst among City Carrier Assistants (CCAs), rising from 54.24% to 59.66%. Among the other three major non-career categories, turnover for Rural Carrier Associates rose from 30.1% to 35.29%, for Postal Support Employees remained stable at 36.6%, and for Mail Handler Assistants increased from 29.86% to 37.67%.

“Most frequently cited causes for non-career employee turnover are lack of schedule flexibility, physical demands, and employee did not like supervisor,” the USPS said.

Swelling the ranks of the non-career workers – who are paid far less than their career counterparts and receive few benefits -- to more than 130,000 is yielding huge savings for the USPS. But it’s come at a cost.

Postal officials acknowledge that having so many inexperienced employees is lowering productivity, increasing on-the-job injuries, slowing deliveries, and jacking up recruiting and training costs.

“Because CCA turnover represents the biggest opportunity for improvement, non-career employee turnover was selected as an NPA [National Performance Assessment] indicator for field positions with high concentrations of CCAs (large Post Offices and Stations and Branches),” the USPS said. Pay-for-performance bonuses for postal managers are based on progress toward meeting NPA targets.

The USPS is also rolling out a revised new-employee orientation program that attempts to address the factors that cause turnover – “from training to feeling welcomed and supported by supervisors,” the USPS reported in December. A pilot of the program in Northern Virginia decreased turnover 22%, the agency said.

Related articles:

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Old Paper Mills: Monuments to a Strong Dollar

 
1909 postcard: 21 million logs at Millinocket, ME paper mill (from the author's collection)
1906 postcard: ME, Maine paper mill and hydroelectric dam (from the author's collection)
"Strong dollar."

Sounds good, doesn't it? The news that our currency continues to strengthen in comparison with those of almost every other country is like winning the Olympics, right? "U-S-A! U-S-A!"

Once-bustling paper-mill towns in Maine that are now turning to ghost towns tell another story. In a state where making paper was an iconic livelihood on par with Down East's famed lobstermen, half of the paper mills have closed in the past two years. Already this year, the site of the former Millinocket mega-mill (pictured above, nine years after it opened as the world's largest paper mill) was sold to a non-profit for $1, permission to demolish another mill was requested, and the Maine Pulp and Paper Association disbanded.

Donald Trump's tirades against foreign trade resonated in the paper-making regions of Maine, just as they did in the parts of  Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin that once thrived on steel, autos, coal and paper. Solid-blue counties that previously went for Obama voted instead for Trump, flipping the states' electoral votes to the GOP column.

But as even President Trump recently seemed to acknowledge, the "strong" dollar may be the real culprit behind the loss of American manufacturing jobs. Especially in the paper industry, and most especially in Maine.

The Madison mill -- pictured above 1906, the year it opened -- is a poster child for the inability of protectionist policies to overcome currency issues. Under questionable circumstances, the U.S. Department of Commerce in July 2015 imposed import duties on all four of its Canadian competitors in an obvious attempt to prop up the Madison mill.

That wasn't enough to save Madison. It couldn't overcome a 35%-plus "strengthening" of the U.S. dollar against the Canadian currency in just four years.

With most of their expenses in cheap Canadian dollars but their revenue in pricey American dollars, Canadian mills could still make a profit selling into the U.S. despite penalties of as much as 19%. Similarly, UPM, the world's largest and most profitable paper company, found it made more sense to supply supercalendered paper to the U.S. from its weak-euro European mills than to continue operating Madison.

The Madison mill made its final roll of paper in May 2016. It was sold to an industrial liquidator late last year.

The Digital Revolution and the strong dollar have been bad news for all U.S. makers of publication papers. Maine has the additional bad fortune of mills that were focused on lightweight papers like newsprint, directory, supercalendered, and lightweight coated that have borne the brunt of the shift to digital media. Plus, its out-of-the-way location gives it at best minimal freight advantages versus Canadian mills when shipping to the Midwest or versus European mills when shipping to must of the U.S. East Coast.

Protectionist policies are no match for declining demand and a rising dollar.

Related articles: