Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson made good on his promise of a "War on Poverty" with the Economic Opportunity Act. As he signed the new law, he declared that it "will strike at poverty's roots" in a way that "is prudent and practical … consistent with our national ideals."
One of the bill's key elements was the establishment of Job Corps, a residential education and training program for low-income young people run by the U.S. Labor Department. At 125 centers in 48 states, students get the skills and confidence necessary to succeed in good jobs in more than 100 occupations — from auto maintenance to information technology, health care to hospitality, and construction to culinary arts.
Here in St. Petersburg, the Pinellas County Job Corps Center offers career technical training in eight areas, including clinical medical assistant, nurse assistant and facilities maintenance. Local employers like Gardner-Watson Decking, Suncoast Hospice and the Fountains consider the Pinellas County Job Corps Center to be a pipeline for skilled talent. They turn to Jobs Corps first when they are hiring. And for good reason. Not only does Job Corps provide work-based learning and on-the-job training, but kids who haven't completed high school can earn their diploma or GED. Job Corps also teaches discipline, teamwork, leadership, communication and problem-solving — skills essential to success not only at work, but in life.
Serving our society's most disconnected young people is, without question, an ambitious undertaking. So many Job Corps students have already been failed by the education system. Roughly three-quarters are high school dropouts. Many are homeless or aging out of foster care; others are runaways and juvenile offenders.
Without Job Corps, many of them are lost. With Job Corps, they have a chance. Tackling deeply entrenched social problems is never easy. But we don't kick people to the curb simply because of a challenge — both as a matter of social justice and, more pragmatically, because we can't afford to squander human capital in a competitive global economy.
And Job Corps works. More than 80 percent of Job Corps students were placed in jobs, entered the military, or continued their education in 2013. Out of difficult circumstances, they take control over their own destinies and punch their tickets to the middle class. They become mechanics or welders or pastry chefs — productive and contributing members of our society and our economy. Some of them go on to become doctors, entertainment executives and judges. One Job Corps alum, George Foreman, went on to become a heavyweight boxing champion and successful entrepreneur.
Because it embodies one of our most cherished, foundational principles —- that opportunity in America should not be reserved just for the lucky — Job Corps has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress and local government. As it should. Fifty years since its founding, we still need Job Corps. It is no longer just a program; it's become a part of who we are as a nation. I salute all those young people who made the decision to invest in themselves by gaining skills through Job Corps. On Labor Day 2014, as we celebrate the contributions that working people make to the strength and prosperity of our nation, let's also celebrate the Job Corps students who will go on to make their own contributions. They will be a big reason to celebrate Labor Day for years to come.
Thomas E. Perez is secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor.