A little-vetted decision by the U.S. Labor Department to freeze enrollment in the U.S. Job Corps program — including a new center in St. Petersburg's Midtown area — may help the bottom line of the nation's largest government-sponsored career technical training program. But it's a simplistic and extremely shortsighted solution that will impact the career trajectory of economically disadvantaged young people at 125 centers nationwide and waste taxpayers' investments. The agency needs to reconsider its options immediately lest progress in St. Petersburg and the rest of the nation be squandered.
This is not the way to impose cost controls on a program that is reportedly running an operational deficit of between $59 million and $61.5 million but whose mission remains so vital, particularly in these economic times. It's unclear why the Labor Department abandoned a more logical plan to save money by suspending only those programs deemed chronically underperforming. The Pinellas County Job Corps Center was exempted from that review process since its first enrolled class started in November 2010, under the minimum five years of operation necessary for a performance evaluation. But for reasons that even U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, hasn't been able to determine, the department opted instead to freeze enrollment at every center from Jan. 28, 2013, to June 30, 2013, not just underperforming ones.
The enrollment freeze is a significant setback in St. Petersburg, particularly for a region that put so much bipartisan firepower and community effort into getting the $42 million facility built in the first place. While the doors to the center will remain open for current students, the enrollment freeze will delay or could deny chances for others to join them. And it will impact local businesses that have committed to bring on center graduates.
The St. Petersburg program enrolls low-income young adults, ages 16 to 24, and provides them room and board and training in construction and health care fields in demand. They are taught how to work and keep a job. They also get a second chance at a high school diploma or GED. As Castor says, the freeze means "we lose momentum, just as we ramp up."
Castor also worries about the timing of the enrollment freeze — just two months before Congress renews discussion about the federal budget and Republicans are expected to renew their calls for dramatic domestic spending cuts. A shrinking Jobs Corps program could be much more vulnerable in those debates.
Castor, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and other area leaders are trying to get the Labor Department to reverse its decision — as are other elected federal and local leaders across the country. They need to be relentless. Job centers can change the lives of those who have the odds stacked against them. That's a smart investment not only for them but also the communities where they live and work.