OTTUMWA — The Job Corps center in Ottumwa opened in 2011. The plan at that time was to house and train 300 students.
Ottumwa was never allowed to bring in 300 students. The federal sequester several years ago cut some funding, leaving Ottumwa at about 230 students. An enrollment freeze was lifted in April 2013, but the center never has operated at the level originally planned. It has been stuck at around 237 students.
That’s about to change. The number-one rated Job Corps Center in the country has been given permission to grow.
“Now the government has decided to give us back our original design capacity,” said Mark Douglas, the Ottumwa Job Corps center’s director. It’s a decision he attributes in part to the center’s top ranking among the nation’s 117 Job Corps sites.
Centers are rated monthly, and an annual ranking is also applied. The ratings take into account students who earn high-school equivalency degrees, progress in literacy and career training, and whether students find and keep jobs after graduation. Ottumwa’s center held the top spot for the year that ended June 30.
It was nearly a wire-to-wire win for the center. Douglas said the center may have dropped to second place for one month, but that was it.
In real terms, the ranking means Ottumwa’s center is doing an unusually good job of helping students find jobs and become productive members of the workforce. Last year saw the center serve 103.8 percent of its goal.
How can a center serve more students than it houses? Unlike traditional educational programs, the Ottumwa Job Corps Center doesn’t follow a strict academic year. Douglas said students arrive every week and graduate every week. And, since the center measures student achievements for one year after they depart, it’s tracking more than its capacity most of the time.
Douglas was not sure what the average was for all centers, but he said the one in second place met about 102 percent of its goal. And Ottumwa’s reputation is growing. There are currently around 80 students on a waiting list to get in.
Centers serve geographic areas, so Ottumwa’s center has students who come in primarily from Iowa and the surrounding states. Some will go on to study at Indian Hills Community College, which partners closely with the facility. Others will go straight into the workforce at places like Musco Lighting and other companies.
Either way, the end goal is for students to repay their training by becoming employees who pay taxes. For students who might not have seen a path to a middle-class job, it’s a win for everyone.
“We believe there is a career pathway for you. We just have to help you figure out what it is,” Douglas said.
And with the news that the program can expand, more students will get their chance to take those steps in Ottumwa.