Out of School, Out of Work.

AuthorKim, Anne

The pandemic has sidelined a generation of young adults. And the federal government's only program to help them, job corps, sucks.

Even before the pandemic, America's young adults were in crisis.

In 2017, as many as 4.5 million young people--or 11.5 percent of young adults ages 16 to 24--were neither in school nor working, according to the nonprofit Measure of America. By the summer of 2020, the organization estimated, the ranks of these "disconnected" young adults had swelled to 6 million.

The pandemic has taken an outsized economic toll on young workers, who disproportionately hold jobs in hardhit sectors such as retail, hospitality, and food service. Un-employment among 16-to-24-year-olds soared from 10 percent in March 2020 to 26 percent in April, according to the j Department of Health and Human Services, with the highest rates of joblessness among Black and Latino youth.

The damage could be long-lasting. The Millennials who graduated into the Great Recession still bear economic scars, with lower employment and earnings than peers who started out in better years. The same fate will befall the COVID-19 generation, unless effective interventions put them back on track.

In theory, the federal government has a program to help.

Job Corps is the government's largest program for disadvantaged young adults ages 16 to 24. It offers training and certification in more than 80 fields, including IT, construction, manufacturing, health care, and hospitality. The program's website features smiling, clean-cut young people driving forklifts, cooking in chef's whites, and fixing cars. "Job Corps provides everything you need to succeed in your education and career training," the site promises. To be eligible for the program, students must not only qualify as low income but also have at least one barrier to education and employment, such as low literacy or homelessness. Job Corps centers provide housing and meals, along with a small allowance, a uniform, books, supplies, and dental and medical care. Tuition is free.

But just as the need for Job Corps escalated, the program ground to a halt. After the pandemic shut down its physical campuses in March 2020, the program struggled to secure laptops and internet access for students. Enrollment shrank to one-fourth of what it was before the pandemic.

The real scandal, though, is that Job Corps has performed poorly for decades--and the government has not invested in any large-scale alternative. Despite an annual budget of roughly $1.7 billion, Job Corps served barely 41,000 students in 2019. Evaluations have found that while the program helps some young adults, teenagers get no long-term benefits in earnings or employment. Government audits have been harsh, documenting mismanagement, safety problems, and persistent failures to place trainees into meaningful jobs. A scathing 2018 audit by the Department of Labor's inspector general concluded that the program "could not demonstrate beneficial job training outcomes." Another report, from the Government Accountability Office, noted more than 13,500 safety incidents from 2016 to 2017 at Job Corps centers, nearly half of them drug-related incidents or assaults. In 2015, two students were murdered in separate campus-related crimes.

Even successful graduates call the program a last resort. "If you're really desperate and ain't got anywhere else to go, then I would do Job Corps," says 24-year-old Earvin Rogers, who enrolled at a New Jersey Job Corps center in 2017 after dropping out of community college. Rogers landed a hotel maintenance job before the pandemic, but is currently unemployed.

Rather than the young people it purports to serve, the program's biggest beneficiaries may be a tight-knit coterie of for-profit government contractors who administer the program, some of whom have held on to multimillion-dollar contracts for decades. But in a testament to congressional inertia, the program lingers on, surviving threatened closures, resisting overhauls, and garnering enough political support to maintain its funding.

Worst of all, inattention has led to decades of under-investment in other solutions for young people. As a result, there's no obvious large-scale alternative to Job Corps. Barring a change in course, the millions of young adults who saw opportunities evaporate during the pandemic may not get the help they need.

Launched during President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, Job Corps now consists of 123 centers across the country, many of them in former military facilities and often in rural areas. A typical campus is the Woodstock Job Corps Center, which sits on 64 acres of tranquil woodland in rural Maryland, about an hour from Washington, D.C. A stately, H-shaped stone building that was once the oldest Jesuit seminary in America, the center can host up to 400 students.

The purpose of this residential setting, as the program founder Sargent Shriver testified to Congress in 1964, was to "take young men from crippling environments and put them in centers where they will receive a blend of useful work, job training, and basic education." Young people would get "a chance to escape from the cycle of poverty and to break out of the ruthless pattern of poor housing, poor homes, and poor education," he argued.

Over the years, Job Corps has unquestionably had its share of successes. The professional boxer George Foreman, who attended the program in the 1960s, was reportedly so grateful that he repaid the federal government the cost of his enrollment.

Today, success stories include alumni like Shimira Mills. Now 28, Mills enrolled in the Pittsburgh Job Corps Center in 2017 on a cousin's advice after a brief stint in culinary school did not launch her dream career of being a chef. Mills spent seven months living at the Pittsburgh campus, learning to be an HVAC technician. She found a job almost immediately at a small local business but has since been hired at a large residential heating and air conditioning company in Philadelphia with better pay and room for promotion. "Within the last two years, I have acquired two cars and an apartment where I'm living by myself," Mills told me. The program, she said, gave her a second chance when she needed one. Without Job Corps, Mills continued, "If I'm going to be 100 percent honest, I would probably still be working dead-end jobs."

Job Corps was also a lifeline for Ricky Gass. Now 24, Gass was 18 when he got involved with drugs. One day he woke up in the back of a police car. "I was smoking some bad stuff one time--I don't even remember what happened," he told me. Gass wanted to turn his life around, especially...

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