ST. PETERSBURG — Along with teaching students trades and skills that make them more employable, the $40 million Pinellas Job Corps center teaches patience. Students, city officials and community boosters who have been waiting for it to be built, for it to open, for a full schedule of classes, for it to reach capacity and for graduates to get jobs have had to have great patience along the way.
The city started lobbying the Department of Labor for a Job Corps center in 2001. In 2003 Pinellas County beat out two dozen metropolitan markets for a multimillion-dollar grant to build a facility. Then the federal government objected to the first proposed site. A purchase of another site fell through when a property owner died.
Finally a city-owned stretch of land at Fifth Avenue S and 22nd Street was pegged for the project. Once the construction of nine buildings including classrooms and dorms was completed in 2009, the center sat idle for months. More than 3,000 applications were submitted by hopeful, would-be students. A bid dispute over what outside company would run the facility delayed its opening until November 2010.
Now, at long last, the first class of 55 students recently graduated but only one has a job offer.
"All of them are in their final internships. Within 45 days they begin the formal process of lining up their jobs," said Larry Deisler, director of the Pinellas County Job Corps Center.
The federal government set the graduation date for all 125 Job Corps centers around the country so it was before most of the Pinellas County students have the final steps of their certifications in health care fields completed. "You don't have a graduation like you would a college or high school," Deisler said. "We don't have a clear-cut beginning or end."
The campus can house 300 students who live and study there for free but has only 158 resident students.
"We had beds for students, but I didn't have career slots to put them in," explained Anita George, Job Corps community liaison. The federal government just approved funds for a few additional training programs.
"I think the fact that they started out under capacity is by design so they can create the type of community and culture that needs to be there," said Goliath Davis, former deputy mayor who was a proponent of Job Corps from its beginning.
"Most job centers are a mile wide and an inch deep,'' George said. "At this particular center we're going to be really deep in health care and construction."
Deisler said there was never a plan to open the doors and have 300 students enrolled right away. The Pinellas site and just one other Job Corps center in Iowa were dubbed to be Centers of Excellence. They are models for a more focused facility with training in fewer but more integral areas.
"It takes us longer to identify what trades make sense. We're writing a new curriculum," he said. "We're not forward speeding this really fast. We'll probably be at capacity in the next five to six months."
The current students and recent graduates are largely from Pinellas and Hillsborough and the Orlando area.
Individually there are great success stories. Jillian Munoz is now certified in medical billing and coding and has just enrolled in the honors college at St. Petersburg College after entering Job Corps 10 months ago. Before that, her mom was in prison while she lived alone and worked at Sears in Orlando.
"It was a free place to live, free training and job placement. If I didn't take a chance on this I was going to be stuck doing the same thing," said the 21-year-old. "All the teachers and staff members help you whether it's their job or not."
She said she never received that support and encouragement in high school.
Aljen Bryant is now a certified nursing assistant after his stint at Job Corps and will begin basic training with the U.S. Army in February. His certification will allow him to enter at a higher rank and make more money than he would have if he enlisted straight out of high school. Until then he will continue to live at Job Corps, hopes to get a job and will mentor youth offenders at nearby Britt Halfway House.
"I'm going to let them know Job Corps is an option as a stepping-stone to get where you want to be," he said.
Job Corps was founded by Sargent Shriver in 1964 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's war on poverty. Its promise is to train students ages 16 to 24 who qualify as low-income for a trade and help them earn a high school diploma or pass the General Educational Development test if they do not have one. Students get free room and board for up to two years in most cases.
George estimated that roughly a third of the recent graduates will go to college, a third will enter the military and a third will join the work force. Two other students along with Munoz are enrolled at St. Petersburg College. Another student will work at Arbor Oaks assisted living facility as a certified nursing aid and many are completing internships around the area.
While few students have jobs at the moment, the center itself has 120 employees working as teachers, advisers, counselors, dorm supervisors and in food service, administration, security, recreation and finance. It seems a high employee-to-student ratio when the center is only at half its capacity. But because it's a residential program, there are shifts around the clock.
The Job Corps refused to release the salary range of the employees, but George said the center has a $7.7 million annual operating budget.
Davis, the former deputy mayor, is confident the center is a worthy venture, even if it will take some patience to see results. "Isn't it great you now have young folks who are trained and have a skill even though they may have to wait for employment placement?'' he said.
"It's a lot better than having young people waiting for employment or placement with no training or skills. They have put themselves in a position for employment and also growth and advancement once they do get employed."
Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or [email protected]