For Some Wayward Youths, Job Corps Offers Redirection
Chris Miele is currently waiting at the Woodstock Job Corps center on a rainy morning, uncertain about where his journey will lead him. Mr. Miele, a 16-year-old with short blond hair, dropped out of high school but has made the decision to join a program that helps over 60,000 young people every year in search of a better life. "I just want to make the most out of this opportunity," he says after arriving at the center. "I’ll stay here as long as I need to. It feels like I’m starting over."
A recent national study conducted by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. suggests that Mr. Miele has made a wise choice. Since 1964, the Job Corps has been the main focus of the federal government’s efforts to assist disadvantaged young people aged 16 to 24 in improving their academic skills and finding employment. This comprehensive program costs $1.3 billion to run in the current fiscal year and includes academic education, vocational training, residential living, counseling, and job placement assistance.
According to the study by Mathematica based in Princeton, NJ, the Job Corps has been particularly beneficial for 16- and 17-year-olds. Those who participated in the program were 80 percent more likely to have obtained a high school diploma or General Educational Development certificate within a 30-month follow-up period compared to a control group who did not participate. Additionally, the participants in this age group earned salaries that were 20 percent higher and had 14 percent lower arrest rates than nonparticipants. Participants of all ages received approximately 1,000 more hours of education and job training than those in the control group. Alan B. Krueger, a professor of economics at Princeton University, described the study as the most scientifically rigorous evaluation of the Job Corps ever conducted and affirmed that this program is effective.
These results align with the increasing consensus that residential centers are effective environments for young dropouts. The Woodstock facility, located in central Maryland, is a peaceful 64-acre campus that was once a Jesuit seminary. It provides a structured environment that helps redirect the lives of young individuals who have faced various challenges. Currently, there are approximately 250 male students and 150 female students at Woodstock, with the numbers changing frequently as new students join and others leave every two weeks. Some of the participants have been expelled from high school, some have experienced time in jail, and a few already hold high school diplomas but seek to enhance their social, academic, and workplace skills. Despite their unique backgrounds, all of the corps members have chosen to be here. They all aim to establish a strong position in a job market that increasingly requires advanced skills.
Vernon Wanamaker, an 18-year-old from Wilmington, Delaware, has been at the center for eight months. He realized he had reached a crucial point in his life after being expelled from school for drug possession. "I used to think that making quick money was the way to go," he says. "But I decided to leave the streets and change my life before it was too late. I finally realized that I want to succeed in life and become someone."
In order to enroll in Job Corps, candidates must meet certain requirements. They must be at least 16 years old and no older than 25 at the time of enrollment. Additionally, they must either be a high school dropout or in need of further vocational training. Job Corps is specifically designed for individuals who live in areas with limited job prospects. If the candidate is a minor, they must obtain signed consent from a parent or guardian.
The program allows participants to learn at their own pace. The duration of the program can vary for each individual, but on average, it lasts approximately eight months according to a study conducted by Mathematica. To successfully graduate from Job Corps, students must earn their GED and demonstrate proficiency in the skills related to their chosen trade.
Upon arrival, students are required to take a placement test to assess their academic levels. At Woodstock, it was found that the average student enters the program with academic skills at a 6th grade level. The results of the placement test determine whether participants will be placed in basic education classes or classes that aim to prepare them for the GED test.
In addition to academic education, all Job Corps students must also learn a trade. The program offers an occupational-exploration component that allows students to experience various types of vocational training before focusing on one specific trade. At Woodstock, students have the opportunity to choose from 14 different trades, including engineering, welding, retail sales, data entry, and culinary arts. They follow a schedule that alternates between a week of academic classes and a week of trade instruction.
One of the challenges faced by staff members, including Dana Kelly, the vocational manager at Woodstock, is instilling in participants the importance of having a strong work ethic. Employers often emphasize that although skills are important, without a strong work ethic, students would not be valuable assets.
Job Corps faced some criticism regarding its vocational training programs in a 1998 audit conducted by the General Accounting Office (GAO) at the request of Rep. Christopher Shays. The audit revealed that the U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees Job Corps and hires private companies to manage the individual centers, had greatly exaggerated the percentage of participants who successfully completed these programs. The department reported a completion rate of 48 percent, while the GAO set it at 14 percent. In response to this criticism, Job Corps officials implemented a new coding system to better monitor and report accurate statistics.
The transition to Woodstock can be a culture shock for many students. The serene rural environment is a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of city life. To maintain discipline and structure, students are required to adhere to a curfew of 10 p.m. and are expected to have lights out in the dormitories by 11 p.m. Additionally, all students must wear uniforms.
For some students, like 19-year-old Larry Matthews, the journey from urban areas, such as Baltimore, to the Job Corps center can be quite challenging. As a high school dropout with a history of involvement in criminal activities, Matthews initially struggled to adjust to the program. However, after a few weeks, he found his footing and is now engaged in academic work as he prepares to take the GED test. Matthews speaks enthusiastically about his chosen trade in electrical wiring and believes that despite the difficulties, Job Corps is a valuable program that offers a fresh perspective on life.
Wanda Nance, the school-to-work coordinator at Woodstock, has experienced firsthand the benefits of Job Corps, as she herself graduated from a Job Corps program in Utah during the 1970s. She considers the program to be a lesson in taking charge of one’s own destiny, which she strives to impart to her students each day.
Craig Stokes, who teaches the welding classes at Woodstock, understands the challenges that his students face. As a dedicated instructor, Stokes takes on various roles, acting as a parent figure, vocational instructor, and counselor all rolled into one. He believes that leading by example is crucial and ensures that he shows commitment and professionalism in his work. Stokes is committed to his students’ success and believes that if they witness his dedication, they too will strive to succeed. He often emphasizes that they too can achieve their goals and leave the program with a sense of accomplishment.