Larry Deisler's new to town, and he's tasked with transforming hundreds of low-income, low-education teens and young adults into taxpayers with jobs. And he's got to do it in an economy with a local jobless rate of 12 percent.
Deisler, 61, directs the brand-new $40 million Pinellas Job Corps Center in St. Petersburg's Dome Industrial Park. The programs, funded by the Department of Labor, put students ages 16 to 24 in dorms, pay for meals and basic health care, and offer a living allowance. Students spend half-days in academic and hands-on vocational training, with goals of landing a job, going to college or joining the military.
There's a weekday curfew of 10 p.m.; permission is required to leave campus. Most students stay about eight months, and more than half nationally in 2008 who were eligible for placement assistance got a job or joined the military with an average hourly wage of $8.85.
The Pinellas center, which has a budget of about $6 million a year, opens in October and welcomes its first students in November. Deisler must create a culture to match the campus' soaring hurricane-resistant roof-lines. He spoke recently with the Times.
What makes Job Corps centers different from other kinds of youth programs?
I think it's the holistic approach with the kids. Especially the residential component. You have the opportunity to really impact their way of thinking, their way of life, much quicker than the school of hard knocks on the streets would do it for them. The structure is very strong. The expectations are very high. … It leads to bright eyes: "I can be successful, I can do this." It's a powerful, powerful change.
Training is one thing; getting those trainees into jobs is another. How are you working with local employers?
Each trade will have an industry advisory council — that's how I do it. So they will be folks from the community that know that business and have that business. They will come in and work with the students, work with the instructors to make sure we're training to what the community needs. We get these businesses also to link up with our kids for work-based learning, which gives them a chance to practice what we're teaching. … For the businesses, you're getting a chance to really develop and screen the folks you hire.
You came from the Phoenix Job Corps Center in Arizona, also operated by ResCare. The Phoenix area had a jobless rate of 9 percent in June, compared with 12 percent in Tampa Bay. Are there different challenges that you're facing here?
It will be very different challenges, but I think it's still the same: getting kids, the students, ready to go to work. And you start their careers very early on. We don't wait until, okay, I'm done with my training, let's find a job. … Our students will have a better foot in the door for the jobs, those few that are available, than someone in the community. We'll get an edge.
Before Phoenix, you were a center director in Sacramento, Calif. You started that job in 1991, in the midst of another recession. Did you pick up tips then for succeeding in this environment?
My whole career, even working with kids in the dormitory as a resident adviser and residential supervisor, you're always working on soft skills — social skills. … And that's the key to a job. Vocational training, yeah, it's really, really a big deal. But your social skills and your employability skills are bigger.
Has the economy forced you to change how you define success? Does it go beyond job placement?
Job Corps changes it once in a while, but not radically. The end result is, are the students going to work, regardless of what the economy says. And that's the payoff. Historically, Job Corps, for each dollar spent, has returned money to the federal government because kids are paying taxes. … But that only works if the students are getting a job, and they're staying employed.
The center is supposed to employ 125 and serve 300 students. How quickly will you reach those numbers?
We are ramping up now. We want to have — this is a target — everyone hired and identified by Sept. 15. We want folks on the ground and here by Oct. 1. We want to use the entire month of October as staff development, staff training. The second week of November, we anticipate beginning bringing students in. We will bring in 20 students twice a month for the next year or so as we slowly build up to strength. … You can't just roll them all in and get the culture you want.
Who is the right student for Job Corps?
Go to a Job Corps graduation, and see the kids — "I got a job at the hospital," "I got a job doing this," "I'm making $15 an hour." Who the right student is, you never know. You really don't. I just say, "Are you dedicated? Do you want a life? Do you believe that you deserve the opportunity to have fun, to have happiness, to be safe? If you do, come on in."
Becky Bowers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/bbowerstimes.