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Job Corps: Helping Young People Become Responsible People

Somewhere out there right now is somebody who could benefit from Job Corps. She's smart and young and terribly bored. Maybe she's been in some trouble and doesn't know what she wants to do with her life. But whatever it is, she wants to do it herself, even if it's hard. She's perfect.

"Initially, Job Corps only went to the age of twenty one," says Tom Zender. He's the director of the Columbia Basin Job Corps Center , and very familiar with the type of people who traditionally do well in the program. "[The intention was to have] a plan for kids who dropped out of school so that they wouldn't go bad, and could fall into a safety net." But since its inception, the program has opened itself to more than 2 million kids from 16 to young adults. The Job Corps Program is an off-shoot of the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930's, and through voluntary enrollment, self-pacing, and open entry and exit policies, continues to attract tens of thousands of young people each year.

"We take kids that are at risk, and that may mean several things," says Zender. "They may come from dysfunctional families, or because they dropped out of school, or because of low income or any of the other ills of our society." But, he says just because an enrollee might have problems doesn't prevent the center from pulling out all the stops to help them succeed. "We're allowed to ask for an extension if a student is progressing and profiting from the program," he says. "Some don't have the advantage of other students and those students need extra time."

The Department of Labor operates 82 centers while the Department of Labor operates another 29 centers in cooperation with the Department of Interior. Of those, the Bureau of Reclamation operates five centers. One center, the Weber Basin Job Corps near Ogden Utah , is a residential, vocational training program geared toward today's work environment.

Students at Weber Basin have the opportunity to learn a number of "hard skills" such as carpentry, painting and bricklaying. In fact, each center gears its curriculum to the needs of the local employment community, which can cover everything from construction to retail to computers. The emphasis is anything that figures prominently for local business. Since Job Corps centers work with community employers, what is offered to students at a particular center is tailored to the job outlook and employment needs for that immediate area. Corps management queries employers to discover what skills are needed.

But, they and other Job Corps members also receive a number of soft skills, says San Francisco Job Corps Region Program Manager, Anthony Zella. "We've learned from employers that we can present them with people who know the job and know the skill. But, those students must have the softer, social skills." Those skills include things like time management, dealing with personal issues and getting along with other people in work environments.

The Job Corps Annual Report for Program Year 1995, produced in cooperation with the Department of Labor, speaks to how the program has evolved. In 1977, there were about 22,000 participants in Job Corps. By 1982, that had increased to 41,000. Meanwhile, the centers themselves have grown and changed with their students. Zella says centers are ranked by performance, and some have sometimes suffered from high turnover, or poor matches which can cut into their goals for their student's wages. This is because the program keeps track of students for up to a year after graduation and follows their employment history, the level at which they're employed and their salary. Those results are then matched against the goals established for the program as well as individual centers.

"Ultimately, it affects a center when it goes up for procurement," he says. "Many centers are run by private companies in cooperation with the Federal Government. If a private company is running a center that isn't doing well statistically, it leaves itself vulnerable. So there is a financial incentive."

There is one more benefit to Job Corps that isn't often quoted in the statistics. It's calm.

"Parents will call us," says Zender. "I guarantee it'll happen in the next few weeks. It happens every year." Parents write him in tears, he says, "to say they finally had a chance to talk with their daughter or son and they had a meaningful conversation … without fighting, and it's because of the change and the social skills that we teach here." Zella concurs. "There are so many obstacles for a young person who decides to get away from, for example, a bad environment. It's particularly thrilling to see someone graduate and accomplish on so many different levels," he says.

So, for that bored, frustrated young man or woman, possibly in a bad situation, possibly wanting to make a change in their life they can claim as their own, they do have an option. They don't have to live the way you're living anymore. They can change. Two million other young people have done it. "They do it everyday," says Zender.


Last updated: January 22, 2007