The Ottumwa Courier

February 1, 2013

Could Dept. of Labor freeze cost Job Corps jobs?

MARK NEWMAN
Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Officials in Washington say they’re unhappy with a Department of Labor directive to temporarily stop accepting new Job Corps students — a decision that could impact jobs locally.

“As a longtime supporter of Job Corps, I am disappointed that new student enrollments have been suspended,” said U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, in a statement to the Courier.

For the remainder of the current fiscal year, students who graduate from the job skills program will not be replaced by new students because of a freeze implemented at all Job Corps facilities by the Department of Labor. The Ottumwa center is designed for 300 students and was slowly ramping up its numbers since its opening in July 2011. Currently, there are roughly 230 students enrolled at the Ottumwa facility. But with the enrollment freeze, the facility’s student numbers could dwindle to about 150 students by July.

If that happens, it’s doubtful the Job Corps centers, including Ottumwa, could sustain all of its employees, lawmakers say.

U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., co-chairman of the bipartisan Congressional Career and Technical Education Caucus, expressed “strong concern” over the Department of Labor’s plan to freeze new enrollment at Job Corps.

“The ... decision to suspend student enrollment at all Job Corps centers will not only be detrimental to students, it will have a significant negative impact on staff and local economies. Many centers across the country will be forced to lay off a significant portion of their staffs, and this is far from what these communities need as they are still struggling to recover from unprecedented unemployment and economic instability,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa City, implied there’s a chance to turn things around.

“I am hopeful that the Department of Labor will continue to work with the contractors that run the centers to address the budget shortfalls and improve national Job Corps efficiency,” he said in a statement to the Courier. “The Ottumwa Job Corps has been a great partner with the community, and I am working with the Department of Labor to find a way to address the situation that is favorable to Iowa students.” 

Harkin, however, seemed a little less hopeful for this year.

“Unfortunately, cost overruns have forced the Department of Labor to take extreme measures to fill a [financial] shortfall in the program. I’m looking forward to doing everything I can to work with the new Secretary of Labor to ensure that a shortfall of this sort never happens again,” he said.

Harkin called Job Corps “a lifeline for at-risk youth and gives them a second chance to get the education and skills they need to succeed in the workplace and in life.”

Officials at the local center said they could not comment and referred all media questions on such policy and funding issues to the Department of Labor’s Office of Public Affairs, which oversees the Job Corps program.

In an email sent to community members on Thursday, Ottumwa Area Chamber of Commerce Director Terry McNitt encouraged the community to throw its support behind the local Job Corps facility, noting in part there are more than 100 good-paying jobs at the facility, which is located near the Ottumwa Regional Airport.

He said in his opinion, there are some government programs that seem like handouts with little measurable improvement for recipients.

In the Job Corps program, however, young people — often good kids with rough backgrounds — get an education in an in-demand job skill under the guidance of Job Corps staff. So instead of taking government handouts, McNitt said, these young people are getting jobs and paying taxes.

“If you have spoken to or worked with some of the students at our Job Corps, they are inspiring, thankful, dedicated,” he said.

“We worked so hard in the region for over 10 years to get this Job Corps facility ... so now we need to step up and do whatever it takes to keep it funded and in operation.”