Friday AM October 27th, 2006

Greater Houston Partnership raising funds to encourage new jobs, capital investment and foreign trade…Simulated train derailment between Center and Tidal involving “release” of toxic and explosive chemicals set between 8:00 a.m. and noon…Government report shows bachelor’s degree adds $23,000 more a year… The Greater Houston Partnership has begun a fundraising effort to expand the relocation […]

Greater Houston Partnership raising funds to encourage new jobs, capital investment and foreign trade…Simulated train derailment between Center and Tidal involving “release” of toxic and explosive chemicals set between 8:00 a.m. and noon…Government report shows bachelor’s degree adds $23,000 more a year…

The Greater Houston Partnership has begun a fundraising effort to expand the relocation or expansion of foreign and domestic companies in the region. Chaired by Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane, Opportunity Houston is a $40 million campaign that the Partnership hopes leads to 600,000 new jobs, attracts $60 billion in capital investment and generates $225 billion in foreign trade. Shell Oil announced a $4 million investment in the initiative. The company’s John Hofmeister says his industry wants to ensure a future supply of high-tech workers.

“We’re going through a demographic crew change in the oil industry. The folks that joined us in the 70s and the 80s have done a wonderful job. As you may recall, in the middle 80s we went through a period of low oil prices. We kind of bumped along at the bottom end of prices through the 90s. And so the industry didn’t do a lot of hiring during that period and a lot of people were affected by layoffs, restructurings and so forth. Well, we’re in a different cycle, now. We’re in a completely different era, and I think what worked in the last 50 years, in terms of the oil business, is not going to work so well in the next 50 years.”

Hofmeister says thousands of jobs over the next decade in the oil industry will be more high-tech than ever before.

“We are much more high-tech, we are emphasizing technology everyday, and so we are looking to build a technical workforce, par excellence. This is, over the next 10 to 15 to 20 years, Houston is going to be, in a sense, a Mecca for high-tech jobs. And that’s going to be energy-driven, it’s going to other kinds of high-tech jobs, whether it’s the Medical Center, nanotechnology, you name it. And I think that energy will be a big part of that. Shell will be a big part of that energy industry, and we’re looking at thousands of jobs over the next ten years.”

The five-year marketing program for the ten-county region is to help Houston compete globally in aerospace and aviation, energy and petrochemicals, information technology, medical and biotechnology and nanotechnology.

New claims for unemployment benefits are on the rise. The Labor Department says the number of Americans filing first-time claims for jobless aid increased by 8,000 last week to a seasonally-adjusted 308,000. The four-week moving average, which smoothes out week-to-week volatility, fell by more than 2,700 to just over 305,000. That’s the lowest level in eight months. Analysts believe that while a slowing economy has dampened hiring plans somewhat, companies are reluctant to lay off workers.

With new home prices falling, more people were buying again last month. New home sales rose 5.3 percent, making for the second straight increase in sales. They’d earlier declined for three consecutive months. The Commerce Department says that the median price for a new home sold in September dropped 9.7 percent from a year earlier. That took the median price back down to the lowest level in about two years and marked the biggest year-over-year decline in more than 35 years. The price decline, however, may have helped to lure some people back into the market.

Long-term mortgage rates edged higher this week. Freddie Mac says the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 6.4 percent compared with 6.36 percent last week. A year ago the average stood at 6.15 percent. The 15-year loan, popular for use in refinancing, also moved higher. The average was 6.1 percent–up from 6.06 percent a week ago. Last year, it was 5.69 percent.

September’s orders to U.S. factories for big-ticket manufactured goods saw the biggest jump in six years. The Commerce Department says durable goods were fueled by surging demand for commercial jetliners. The increase of 7.8 percent follows two straight months of declines. It is the biggest gain since June 2000 and is larger-than-expected.

A simulated train derailment between Center Street and Tidal Road involving the “release” of toxic and explosive chemicals is set for this morning between 8:00 a.m. and noon. The 2006 Deer Park Full-Scale Exercise will occur at 16 locations and will affect the eastbound and westbound feeder roads and exit ramps of State Highway 225 between Center Street and East Boulevard; roadblocks at Ivy Avenue and East 1st Street, State Highway 225 and Tidal Road, and State Highway 225 and East Boulevard. Portions of Center Street, Luella and Meadow Lark will be temporarily blocked to allow the safe evacuation of teachers and students from three Deer Park schools to the Deer Park High School south campus.

The Houston Police Department is conducting an open house Saturday at HPD Headquarters on Travis, giving potential police recruit candidates the opportunity to ask questions about a law enforcement career. Current officer from other agencies seeking a new career path still have time to apply for the December Lateral Entry Class. A second recruiting open house is set for Saturday, November 4th.

Webster-based Spacehab has completed the sale of The Space Store to a private investor. The store is the company’s space-related merchandise Internet and retail outlet. Originally purchased through Spacehab’s space media subsidiary in 2000, the store carries hundreds of different space items, including NASA flight suits, space food, mission patches, toys and other items. Spacehab arranges, processes and delivers cargo to orbit, providing space products and services to NASA, international space agencies, the Department of Defense and private customers.

The employment law firm of Jackson Lewis has opened a new office in Houston, in response to economic growth in the region and client demands for a local presence. The company points to the demands for labor and employment lawyers due to an increase in employers in the region and two major growth areas—wage and hour matters and a rise in labor union activity. The new office on Jefferson is the firm’s 27th nationwide.

Eighteen former employees of the Dallas Morning News have filed suit against the newspaper–alleging their layoffs two years ago were the result of age discrimination. Defendants named in the lawsuit include the newspaper, publisher James M. Moroney III, parent company Belo, Belo chairman and chief executive Robert W. Decherd, and retirement plans at the paper. The lawsuit was filed this week in U.S. District Court in Dallas. Belo spokesman Carey Hendrickson says the complaint is without merit. The former staffers are mostly reporters or editors and say they were all older than 40 years old when they were laid off in October 2004. The lawsuit charges the defendants violated a federal law against age discrimination, interfered with pension rights, failed to disclose changes in pension plans, and conspired to cover up inflated circulation figures. The plaintiffs suggested that 14 of the 18 involved in the lawsuit may have been targeted because they were among a dwindling number of workers in an older pension plan with richer benefits for longtime employees.

Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu says an Associated Press analysis of insurance claims from Hurricane Katrina victims shows companies haven’t done enough to tell customers about their options, especially minorities. She says there is no excuse for anything but full disclosure, clear guidance and swift reimbursement.’ She is calling for a federal commission to study ways to better provide insurance for consumers. The AP studied thousands of insurance complaints. It found white homeowners three times more likely than blacks to appeal insurance settlements they’re offered. Once the awards were appealed, state regulators arranged an average additional payment of $40,000. One woman whose Lower Ninth Ward home was under nine feet of water says her neighbors in the mostly all-black neighborhood got tired of fighting their insurance companies, and didn’t believe the government would help.

Atmos Energy is seeking a $63 million rate hike. But critics say the Dallas-based natural gas utility’s customers shouldn’t have to pay for some of the company’s expenses. Those expenses include $75,000 in artwork, meals at expensive restaurants and airline tickets. Joe Sanchez is Associate State Director for Advocacy of AARP. He tells the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the rate request is “outrageous” in light of the corporate expenditures. But a spokesman for the Dallas-based utility calls the expenses necessary and legal under state law. In May, Atmos filed a request for a rate hike that would boost the average home gas bill by about $4 per month. But an organization representing Texas cities has countered with a proposal to slash the company’s revenue by more than $30 million and reduce rates by about $5 per month. State law allows utilities to pass on legitimate business expenses to ratepayers. But the municipal group examined hundreds of pages of company documents and complained about spending it considered unreasonable. The Texas Railroad Commission is scheduled to hold hearings on the Atmos request next week.

The Texans for Affordable Reliable Power is asking the North Texas Clean Air Steering Committee why it as asking the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to impose air emissions rules on East Texas electric suppliers that it says were rejected in 2005 as ineffective and horrendously expensive. The group says the plan would force the retirement of about 100 gas-fired electric generating units in East Texas, require about $10 billion in retrofitting and fuel conversion at other plants and leave the state short of power. TARP says transportation emissions are the major reason Dallas and fort Worth are non-attainment areas, even as emissions from power plants have been steadily reduced.

A report released by the government shows that a bachelor’s degree is worth about $23,000 a year. That is the average gap in earnings between adults with bachelor’s degrees and those with high school diplomas. That’s according to data from the Census Bureau. College graduates made an average of $52,000 in 2004, the most recent figures available, compared with about $29,000 for adults with a high school diploma. High school dropouts earned an average of $19,000 and those with advanced college degrees made an average of $78,000. Among the other findings in the report include that Texas had the lowest proportion of adults with at least a high school diploma, about 78 percent. It was followed closely by Kentucky and Mississippi.

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