Job Corps: Success, Failure, or in Need of Reinvention and Reinvigoration

Print Share on LinkedIn More

May 19, 2014; Washington Post

David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post asks if the $1.7 billion Job Corps—the largest job training program in the U.S. Department of Labor repertoire—works, or perhaps whether what the Job Corps accomplishes is worth the money.

By our take, the answer is half and half. On one hand, this legacy of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society provides important job training help for young people. On the other, the problem is one of implementation, and the solution may require a dollop or more of program reinvention.

Fahrenthold writes about the Job Corps program at Treasure Lake, Oklahoma, where U.S. Forest Service personnel take “troubled youths” and teach them trades such as cooking, nursing, and plumbing. Farenthold notes that just less than half of the Job Corps students at Treasure Lake completed their job training and only 55 percent of the graduates found jobs in the skills they were trained for. He writes that a year of education and placement at Treasure Lake, perhaps typical for the Job Corps program, costs $45,000 a student, more than tuition at many colleges.

The 125 Job Corps centers around the country are run by a mix of for-profit and nonprofit contractors. The National Job Corps Association, the 501(c)(6) trade association representing these contractors, sees the Job Corps story as one of success, but something is wrong with the evidence: On its website, in answer to the question, “Is Job Corps successful,” the association reported that in one program year, 90 percent of Job Corps graduates were successfully placed, with 76 percent getting jobs, 3 percent enrolling in the military, and 11 percent going for higher education. Those statistics were for the program year ending June 30, 2004, a full decade ago. On another page of the association’s website, there is one citation of a study attesting to the success of the Job Corps—a 2003 article drawn from an evaluation of Youthbuild.

Farenthold challenges the Job Corps narrative as indicative of the shortcomings of the Great Society or War on Poverty overall. “Government has vastly expanded its ambition to improve individual lives,” he writes. “[But] government often fails to fulfill those broad ambitions…And we’ve gotten used to it.”

He explains that less than half of Job Corps students finished their job training and found jobs in the field they were trained for, but notes that the Job Corps is popular with Congress. Critics suggest that it is an expensive approach to job training and placement, but supporters counter that the Job Corps does more than job training; it helps troubled young people turn around their lives.

The trade association of Job Corps contractors calls on its members to identify “Job Corps Heroes” and truck them to lobbying efforts to keep the program alive, and there are heroes among Job Corps graduates, notably former heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman, who traded street fighting for boxing at a Job Corps center. There are other notable graduates in all fields, but reports over the years suggest that in some cases, Job Corps centers fudged the numbers to show higher placement rates. A longitudinal study of Job Corps graduates conducted by Mathematica found that Job Corps participants had greater educational gains, fewer arrests, and more income than a matching control group for four years after attending the Job Corps, but after four years, the positive results dissipated.

“What you find is that the program—from society’s perspective—does not pay for itself,” Peter Schochet, a Mathematica senior fellow involved in the study, observed. “But it is a good deal for the enrollees themselves.”

When a trade association promoting a federal program has to rely on data and research that is a decade old and not necessarily on point, it’s not hard to see that something is amiss. Farenthold’s reporting on the Treasure Lake center is full of kids hating the chaos of the program and finding mixed value at best in the training. Our guess is that for a number of kids, whether or not they hate their time at the centers (much like they might have hated time at school before they dropped out), there are still benefits that probably do show up in increased job readiness, job skills, and employability. At the same time, it seems that some contractors may not have recalibrated their programs to aim at skills and trades that translate into areas where the labor market is heading. Some contractors, it appears, may be running on autopilot, accustomed to the DOL contracts and failing to make adjustments to the students or the dynamics of contemporary life. It happens, as we all know, when entities, for-profit or nonprofit, get hooked into a symbiotic relationship with the federal agency that provides the money, rather than asking about what really works and what might work even better.

Remember, that’s the conundrum that President Obama charged Vice President Biden with at the time of the last State of the Union address—find out what’s working in job training and job placement and report back to the nation. Come on! In the job training and job placement field, there are plenty of providers that know what works and how to get troubled young people into the labor market. Maybe Vice President Biden will surprise us with some hitherto unknown models of job training work emulating and replicating, but we wouldn’t expect it. Under Secretary Perez, who seems to represent a gust of fresh air into the sometimes-moribund recesses of the Department of Labor, it is time for the Job Corps to get off its past laurels and find what really works in the realm of job training for troubled kids. Doing in the future what we’ve always done in the past is not a path to success.

At the same time, there is absolutely no point to studies that purport to compare the expense of successful Job Corps training with some inchoate, larger economic measure of benefit to society. It costs resources to create good outcomes for people in a society that, in economic terms, is increasingly rigid in socioeconomic mobility and generating fewer and fewer opportunities of employment that aren’t themselves cemented into “working poverty.” It costs $1.7 billion or more to provide “on ramps” for troubled young people, school dropouts and others, into the working economy. Like any program with a history of successes—and shortfalls—the Job Corps needs intelligent reinvention, not blind support from contractors and Congressmen nor blind opposition from others who automatically view government expenditures for the poor as too costly and ineffective.—Rick Cohen