(c) 2017, The Washington Post.
WASHINGTON - Job Corps is the nation's largest residential training and employment program, but some of the 50,000 young people it serves annually are looking for something even more fundamental than a good gig.
"Our students regularly tell us stories about how they enrolled in Job Corps to escape gangs, an unstable home life or an unsafe community that made it impossible to pursue their education and career goals," Jeffrey Barton, director of the Earle C. Clements Job Corps Academy in Morganfield, Ky., said at a recent House hearing.
But with two homicides at training centers in 2015, the Job Corps's record for providing a safe environment has taken a shot. That reputation wasn't helped by the testimony of Larry D. Turner, the Labor Department's deputy inspector general, at the House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing.
And that bad rap, despite all the good Job Corps does training a largely disadvantaged group of 16- to 24-year-olds, leaves the program vulnerable to President Trump's proposed budget cuts.
Even after a series of reports on Job Corps student safety, Turner said the agency continues to fall short in three areas:
In response to a similar inspector general's report issued in March, the department's Education and Training Administration said that "Job Corps has made major improvements in safety and security," including training, a new background check process and a security hotline.
"The safety and security issues that arise at Job Corps," the statement said, "are no different and are on par with the issues educators face in serving today's young people at comparable institutions."
However, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., chair of the education committee, cited more than 30 reports regarding Job Corps safety and complained about "a systemic and alarming lack of oversight in the safety and security of the Jobs Corps program."
"We have reached a critical point where lives are in real danger if Congress does not act," she said. "What is truly shocking and sad is that nine student deaths and a number other violent or health related incidents have occurred just since 2015 as a result of lapses in safety and security. . . . The deficiencies in proper security measures are not isolated, or associated with one specific Job Corps center. This is a systemic problem throughout the Job Corps program."
She did not explain why "health related incidents" would be considered safety or security issues. When asked for verification of the nine deaths, her staff initially provided a Government Accountability Office report that did not do so.
While Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott, D-Va., shared Foxx's concerns about safety, he cautioned against overreaction and defended the program against Trump's cuts.
"Job Corp provides a safer environment for these young people and is transformational for the overwhelming number of students who finish the program," Scott said. "In 2015, more than 80 percent of Job Corps graduates found a job, went on to college, or entered the military and 71 percent received an industry-recognized credential before graduation.
"We need Job Corps more than ever, and we need more of it."
Trump, however, wants less of it. He proposed a 14 percent cut from its $1.7 billion current budget. A House Republican plan also would cut it, but only slightly.
"What we pay for the Job Corps program each year," Scott said, "pales in comparison to what we would be on track to pay for some of these young people if they are incarcerated, on public assistance, and on Medicaid."
Both Foxx and Scott were miffed that the Labor Department pulled top-level administration representation from the hearing not long before it began. Labor officials apparently were peeved that a high-ranking agency official would have been on the same panel with other witnesses.
"There is a long-standing policy for Congress to afford Executive Branch witnesses an opportunity to testify on a panel separate from non-governmental witnesses," a Labor Department spokesman said by email.
Speaking about his Job Corps center in Kentucky, Barton placed the safety issue in context.
"Every single holiday break," he told the committee, "I receive calls from students asking if they can return to the Job Corps center early because they are concerned about violence in their community, the temptation or peer pressure to use drugs, or their own safety."
"For many of our students," he added, "our centers are a refuge."