Job Corps Centers / U.S. Department of Agriculture

August 27, 2015; Washington Post

One of the War on Poverty programs that has been allowed to wither on the vine is the Job Corps. This career development program for at-risk men and women between the ages of 16 and 25, providing GED and vocational training, is down to 125 Job Corps centers, a little over 90 of which are managed by a mix of for-profit and nonprofit operators. The 2013 statistics on the program identify 45,047 students as “separated from the program,” the language of this program for students who have graduated from the Job Corps (completing a minimum of 60 days of the program plus obtaining either a high school equivalency diploma or a career training certification or both), students who have completed the 60 days but didn’t qualify for or pass the high school equivalency or career certification elements and left the program, and “uncommitted students” (having left the program short of 60 days or having been expelled under the program’s so-called “Zero Tolerance” rules for behavioral infractions). The Job Corps reports that of the separated students in 2013, 63.8 percent received a high school equivalency certification, 65.9 percent completed career technical certification training, and 68.2 percent of graduates got full-time placements at an average wage of $9.90 an hour.

The program’s history has been rocky since the first 30 Job Corps enrollees showed up at Camp Catoctin, Maryland, in 1964. While more than 1.9 million young people have passed through this program since its inception, it has constantly been on the chopping block of successive presidential administrations, stumbled through budget cuts and program deficits, and most recently encountered some severe problems due to violence and even murders at some Job Corps sites.

In the Washington Post, Lisa Rein reports that four Job Corps students at the Homestead Job Corps in Miami-Dade have been charged with allegedly hacking a classmate to death with a machete. Earlier this year, at the St. Louis Job Corps campus, a student allegedly shot another student in his dorm room. (Job Corps trainees are given food and board during their Job Corps experience.) Last year, a female student at an Oregon Job Corps center was raped by a male security guard. Rein also reports about assaults and sexual abuse having been revealed at the McKinney, Texas Job Corps site.

According to Rein, “The inspector general found in February that despite the zero-tolerance policy for violence and illegal drugs, local job corps centers have failed to report and investigate serious misconduct like drug abuse and assaults, and many downgrade violent infractions to lesser infractions to keep students enrolled.”

Although the incidents of violence and death are deplorable, one can understand program administrators trying to keep at-risk students from tough family and neighborhood backgrounds in the program, even if they have had infractions involving drug use. There may be a problem with federal oversight of the job centers here, but some of the issues might be in the centers themselves, with varying interpretations of the rules and questions in some sites regarding managerial competence. The Job Corps centers are mostly run by competitively selected for-profit and nonprofit contractors, but they have been the subject of several inspector general and General Accounting Office reports outlining cost overruns, management problems, and disciplinary issues.

As a result of the Homestead murder, the federal government has suspended fall classes at the Homestead Job Corps center, stopped enrollment for the fall, and moved the 17 students who were there for the summer to other Jobs Corps facilities. This isn’t the first time that the Homestead operator, a Kentucky-based for-profit firm called ResCare, has been in trouble for serious incidents at the facility; a 2006 incident found five Job Corps participants in a warehouse that was used as a gang hangout. Regarding the current incident, ResCare apparently was none-too-quick in noticing and searching for the student who turned out to be a murder victim, failing not only to initially look for him, but also to tell his family he was missing.

Abetted by the IG and GAO reports, the public impression is that the Job Corps is out of control and an absolute muck-up. The Miami Herald article on the Homestead facility refers to a spate of “increasingly negative” newspaper headlines about the Jobs Corps program nationally. However, that doesn’t seem to be entirely accurate.

In Alaska, for example, Governor Bill Walker and Senator Dan Sullivan recently showed up at the graduation ceremony for fifty Job Corps participants in Palmer, with Walker talking about his own experience in the building trades working as a carpenter, that “building things as an education is beyond anything you could ever get.” In Ottumwa, Iowa, the commencement speakers weren’t politicians, but former Job Corps participants—23-year-old Glen Carter who trained in medical support office work, and 41-year-old Desmund Adams who went from the Job Corps to Drake Law School to running for Congress in Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District. Hardly one to be thought of as a supporter of an anti-poverty program, Maine governor Paul LePage spoke at the recent graduation ceremony at the Penobscot Jobs Corp to suggest that for all he knew, one of the 80 graduates might turn out to be a governor in the future.

There’s sometimes negative news coverage, but some of it is quite suspicious. In Chicopee, Massachusetts, for example, neighbors of the Westover Job Corps have complained that “large packs” of students at the center sometimes gathered in the neighborhood park and walking on the streets, “frighten(ing) children and mak(ing) residents concerned about crime.” It isn’t hard to discern the hidden meaning in the residents’ complaints—fear of black kids. One resident complained that he found needles from syringes in a neighborhood park, which he attributed to the Job Corps kids, though the Chicopee police chief, William R. Jebb, said they couldn’t be specifically attributed to Job Corps participants and, rather, needles were being found all around the city due to increasing heroin use (a topic that has been covered in the NPQ Newswire). In Ogden, Utah, two students at the Clearfield Job Center were arrested for selling marijuana to their Job Corps classmates. That’s probably not all that different from what might be happening at hallway lockers in the local high school—selling baggies of marijuana.

Less well publicized is the fact that, on the other side of the law, Idaho Court of Appeals judge Sergio Gutierrez earned his GED in the 1970s at the Wolf Creek Job Corps in Glide, Oregon. Another notable graduate of the Job Corps is heavyweight boxer George Foreman, who was trained at the Grants Pass Job Corps center in Oregon and the Parks Job Corps Center in Pleasanton, California.

There is no debate whatsoever about ridding Job Corps sites of program participants prone to violence. There is also little question that the variable performance of some Job Corps centers merits review and perhaps programmatic medication, as we have noted in the past. But the value of the Job Corps to at-risk youth who might become judges, candidates for Congress, or even governors shouldn’t be lost in the press coverage of the alleged murders at the Homestead campus, or anywhere else where criminals infiltrate and disrupt the efforts of people to better themselves. The fact that some bad people have caused havoc in a number of Job Corps sites shouldn’t lead to a lack for support for this underappreciated but still important product of the War on Poverty.—Rick Cohen