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Holding Job Corps to a Higher Standard of Accountability

The Job Corps program has the potential to offer a lifeline to disadvantaged youth, and can be instrumental in helping them become responsible and employable members of the workforce. The program was created to encourage civic engagement, and many past students have been able to use their Job Corps experience as a launching pad to a fulfilling life and career. However, though its purpose is powerful, it is no secret that the Job Corps program has been plagued by systemic mismanagement and lapses in safety that put its participants and staff at significant risk.

In recent years, Job Corps centers have been the site of improper staff behavior, drug use, student violence and misconduct, serious lapses in student protection and security, and even student deaths. Students deserve a learning environment free from violence and instability, and these incidents are inexcusable.

In 2014, Congress passed a bill sponsored by Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC), the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, bipartisan legislation designed to hold Job Corps to a higher standard of accountability. Among the bill’s provisions, Job Corps participants were required to pass a background check and drug test (as they would if they were chosen for a job), and the Secretary of Labor was directed to adopt a zero tolerance policy for violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and other illegal activities.

Unfortunately, after this legislation became law, the Obama-era Department of Labor (DOL) repeatedly dropped the ball, and the Committee on Education and the Workforce drew attention to these lapses in program management.

Though the new Department of Labor leadership is taking strides to make necessary changes to its program, it is still not without fault. In June of last year, the Office of Job Corps declined to testify in front of the committee at a hearing examining student safety in the Job Corps program. In Chairwoman Foxx’s opening statement, the Chairwoman expressed her disappointment that Job Corps leadership failed to attend and explained, “Their attendance would have provided the committee with important information about the program and the measures taken by the Office of Job Corps to address these safety concerns.”

Two months after the hearing, Chairwoman Virginia Foxx penned a letter to the Department of Labor voicing her concerns for the well-being of Job Corps participants. In the letter, Chairwoman Foxx noted the Job Corps program’s failure to resolve four of the six recommendations made by the Labor Department’s Inspector General in its 2015 report.  Additionally, the Chairwoman acknowledged the dismaying news that since 2007, 265 Job Corps students have died, 61 onsite, and there have been nearly 50,000 reported serious incidences involving Job Corps participants.

That’s why, last week, the Committee was glad to see the Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) release a report examining the Department of Labor program. In the OIG’s report, it noted that Job Corps has begun to take action to remedy its many problems. Of the 15 recommendations made in the OIG’s previous reports, two have been fully implemented and are considered “closed”, but 13 remaining recommendations still require full implementation by the Department of Labor.

While the OIG noted Job Corps was moving in a better direction, it still must do more to address misconduct at Job Corps sites across the country. The OIG report noted that 2017 saw an uptick in safety incidents in 2017 as compared to 2016. Job Corps claims the increase in recorded safety incidents is due to improved reporting, and it has adopted new measures to improve law enforcement notification when necessary.

These efforts indicate that the DOL is making a full faith effort to redress the safety hazards that went unchecked during previous administrations. New leadership is working to right the program’s many wrongs, however, there is still much more work that needs to be done.

The Committee on Education and the Workforce will continue to follow the Job Corps program's progress, and will hold the program accountable for its successes and failures. Job Corps students and staff deserve centers that are safe and secure, and it is paramount that the Job Corps program continues the repair of its systemic problems so that it may truly live up to its purpose.