The Ottumwa Courier

Local News

June 9, 2012

Job Corps rolls out the red carpet

Secretary of labor, Sen. Harkin attend center’s ribbon cutting

OTTUMWA — The U.S. Secretary of Labor must have seen these students were different. Not because of the colorful “trade” uniforms. Or because some had dropped out of high school. What’s different from other students was their enthusiastic attitude. When told to go back to class, they cheered.

Those students met presidential advisor Hilda Solis and staff Friday at a ceremony celebrating the opening of the Ottumwa Job Corps Center.

Solis, whose department oversees the program, said young people gain a skilled trade but also leave the centers with  improved confidence and a more positive attitude.

Assistant Secretary of Labor Jane Oates pointed out the student who had introduced the officials. She talked about student Gage Taylor’s poise, charisma and ability to speak before a large crowd. Who wouldn’t, she said, want to hire a young man like that?

The last time Secretary Solis was in Ottumwa, the campus was an empty farm field. This year, the center started its on-site job training and recently passed the halfway point toward a student capacity of 300. Qualifying low-income students can get a high school diploma and vocational training to prepare them for the workforce.

“You take one of these kids looking at a lifetime of minimum-wage jobs, if that. Maybe they dropped out, or [became] pregnant, or maybe they made some mistakes,” said Sen. Tom Harkin before the event. “They can turn their lives around, [becoming] highly skilled workers who pay more in taxes ... if [society] puts them on a ladder of opportunity,” then lets them work hard.

U.S. Congressman Dave Loebsack wasn’t able to attend, but in a letter he said because he worked hard in school, he was able to climb out of poverty.

“Education is one of the most important ... predictors of future success,” he wrote. “One only has to hear the personal stories of any of these students to realize what a great service and opportunity Job Corps provides.”

Most of the 160 students were in the recreation building Friday morning. So were members of the public and local officials.

Harkin said it was because of local leaders like Jerry Parker and Curtis Crystal that Wapello County won the competition for a Job Corps site.

But there’s a back story, too. There were no Job Corps projects to compete for. The Ottumwa delegation had to convince Washington to build a few more Job Corps centers. Officials say it was Jim Lindenmayer, president of Indian Hills Community College, who lead the charge more than 10 years ago.

Only then, when the Labor Department agreed to build another two or three centers, could Ottumwa begin to compete to get one. Harkin said it was Lindenmayer and his team who persistently pushed for the center to be located in Wapello County. Harkin said he was glad to be in a position to help with the push. But it was more than that, officials said.

Solis said as soon as she was appointed to the presidential Cabinet,  Harkin came to see her about the ongoing effort to approve an Ottumwa Job Corps center. And Lindenmayer said without Harkin, the project wouldn’t have happened.

But Harkin told the crowd Friday that Job Corps is one project that enjoys a lot of bipartisan support.

Though Lindenmayer didn’t address the crowd Friday, he publicly agreed with the senator’s statement, saying Sen. Chuck Grassley and his staff helped push the project forward, and Rep. Jim Leech deserved thanks, too. He said Loebsack got behind the effort, and while governor, Tom Vilsack supported a center coming to Ottumwa.

When it was time for Harkin, Solis and Oates to cut the ceremonial ribbon Friday, Harkin stopped, pointed toward the audience and asked Lindenmayer up to the stage to join them.

Before the event, Harkin said, “One of the experimental things we’re looking at is how the interaction with the community college is going to work.”  

The partnership between Job Corps and Indian Hills is a first in the country, Harkin told the audience, one of two firsts for Iowa.

Besides Mark Douglas, the Ottumwa center director, Friday’s event welcomed Steve Reitan, director of Iowa’s other Job Corps site in Denison.

That center’s first-in-the-nation effort was a program for teen moms who could now attend school with their child on campus and learn a job skill.

That success, Harkin said, has been repeated at centers around the country.

If the Ottumwa experiment goes as well as he anticipates, he may require that future Job Corps sites have a similar partnership with a local community college.

Solis went a step further Friday, talking about the 124 existing centers copying the Ottumwa model of educational cooperation.

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