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 hard-hit sectors such as retail, hospitality, and food service. Unemployment among 16-to-24-year-olds soared from 10 percent in March 2020 to 26 percent in April, according to the 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 underinvestment 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 when he learned that he had a daughter on the way. But with only a high school diploma, the best job he could get was at the local Family Dollar. “My check was $200 every two weeks,” he said. “It was horrible.”
In 2019, Gass enrolled at New Jersey’s Edison Job Corps Center and threw himself into his classes, learning everything from putting in electrical wiring to hanging drywall. When one of his advisers offered him a training opportunity at a solar power company, Gass jumped at the chance and was hired soon thereafter. Today, he installs panels for Solar Landscape, a company that specializes in building large-scale solar projects in New Jersey. He is paid the industry’s prevailing wage, which is currently about $62 an hour, according to Solar Landscape’s director of community engagement, Katelyn Gold. “It’s a good thing I’m part of this company,” said Gass, who was expecting a second child when we spoke in September. “I’m pushed every day to be better, and it’s a perfect scenario where I’m at.”
The defenders of Job Corps point to stories like those of Mills and Gass as proof of the program’s value. But then there are students like Julea Shannon, who spent seven months at the Joliet Job Center in Illinois and earned certificates in Microsoft Word and other office software. While she told me she enjoyed the experience of living on campus (“You get to see how it is to live without your parents. It teaches you to be a mature adult,” she said over chat on LinkedIn), the program didn’t help her land a job. She ultimately went back to community college and earned an associate’s degree in criminal justice in 2019. When I contacted her this March, however, she was still looking for work and considering more schooling.
Formal evaluations of the program are similarly mixed. Evidence shows that for older students like Mills and Gass, Job Corps can be effective. In a rigorous series of evaluations published in 2018, the research organization Mathematica found that students between the ages of 20 and 24 at the time of enrollment were 4.2 percentage points more likely to be employed 20 years later than a comparable group that did not attend. They were also 1.4 percentage points more likely to be filing taxes and 3.6 percentage points less likely to be on disability. For these students, the net benefit of Job Corps to society was about $30,000 over the course of a participant’s lifetime (in inflation-adjusted dollars), taking into account the taxes they paid on earnings, as well as savings from reductions in crime and dependency on public benefits.
But Mathematica’s study told a different story about the teenagers who enroll in Job Corps—and who make up the bulk of attendees. It found no long-term gains in earnings or employment for students who started the program when they were ages 16 to 19. The study concluded that overall, Job Corps was not cost-effective. In fact, Mathematica found that even taking into account the benefits from older students’ success, the net cost of Job Corps was about $17,800 per participant (again, in inflation-adjusted dollars).
This research has one important caveat: Because it tracked the long-term fortunes of Job Corps students for up to 20 years after they left the program, its results reflect the program as it was in 1995, versus today. But little evidence indicates that Job Corps has improved dramatically since then.
The program has been a frequent target of the Department of Labor’s inspector general, with dozens of audits over the years examining everything from student outcomes to contracting practices, center safety, reports of cheating, and inadequate financial oversight.
Especially damning is a 2018 audit by the IG, which found that the program couldn’t demonstrate that it placed students into “meaningful jobs appropriate to their training.” Out of the 50 students for whom the IG was able to track down employment histories, more than half were placed in jobs similar to what they were doing before Job Corps. One student, who worked as a retail cashier before Job Corps, spent 310 days in bricklaying training only to return to the exact same store where they had worked previously. Job Corps reported this as a “successful” graduation and placement. Among 231 students for whom wage records were documented, the median annual income was just $12,105 in 2016—nearly $15,000 less than the median income for all workers without a high school diploma.
Another audit, in 2011, found that Job Corps overstated the success of 42 percent of 17,787 job placements, with those students taking entry-level jobs unrelated to their training. Among the mismatches were “culinary students placed as pest control workers, funeral attendants, baggage porters, concierges, tour guides, telemarketers, cashiers, telephone operators . . . and file clerks.”
Poor reporting and financial oversight are also consistent themes in these government investigations. In 2013, for example, the IG’s office concluded that Job Corps had improperly awarded $353 million in noncompetitive contracts to its contractors. A 2011 IG report determined that the program may have spent as much as $164.6 million in 2010 on training for students who were not eligible to enroll. In every year since 2006, the IG’s annual report has identified Job Corps safety and program effectiveness as among the Department of Labor’s “top management and performance challenges.”
In fairness, the mission of Job Corps is a difficult one to make good on.
“The labor market is not very hospitable to young people without high levels of post-secondary skills,” says Dan Bloom, senior vice president at MDRC, a nonpartisan policy research organization focused on social and education issues. “Put together with problems in the public schools, a harsh criminal justice [system], and a bunch of other contextual factors, and it’s very difficult to change those trajectories.”
Job Corps is taking on a group of young adults who are tough to reach successfully. Of the nearly 50,000 young people enrolled in Job Corps in 2018, 60 percent did not have a high school diploma or GED when they entered the program, 20 percent were receiving public assistance, and 5 percent were homeless, runaways, or in foster care. About 80 percent of Job Corps students were teens and younger adults, ages 16 to 20.
Job Corps graduate Malcolm Little, who served as student body president at the Woodstock Job Corps Center in Maryland in 2016, said many of his classmates were victims of crime or had witnessed violence.
“I met girls who were pimped out, put on drugs, folks trying to kill them,” he told me. “There were other people, both male and female, who were sex trafficked and ex–drug dealers who were trying to get themselves together.” Little said one young man he met in the program didn’t go home to Atlanta for Christmas break because he feared for his life. “He told me the neighborhood he lived in was so bad that if he disappeared for three weeks and came back, people would assume he had been detained by the feds and snitched to get out, and that would have put a target on his back,” Little said.
The prevalence of this kind of trauma means that Job Corps must serve as far more than a training program to its students if they are to succeed. “They need mental health, they need physical health, they need medications,” says Tony Staynings, who is now the director of the Potomac Job Corps Center in Washington, D.C., but was a consultant to the program when we spoke. “There’s a whole element to the delivery of service that the average person looking from the outside doesn’t understand.”
On the one hand, the expectations placed on the Job Corps program are arguably unreasonable. No career and education program can, on its own, salvage the fortunes of young people whose lives have been shaped by deep-rooted systemic poverty. A young person’s disconnection from the economic mainstream is the end result of subpar schools, a dearth of jobs, and, often, neighborhoods beset by violence.
On the other hand, it’s not unreasonable to question the efficacy of a more than 50-year-old approach to training and education that has so far delivered decidedly mixed results. Particularly deserving of scrutiny is Job Corps’ residential model. While it’s the program’s signature feature, it’s also its central weakness, especially during a pandemic.
When schools and colleges across the country shut down in March 2020, Job Corps centers followed suit, sending home or finding other housing for 30,000 students, according to a July 2020 IG report on the program’s COVID-19 response. About 450 students with nowhere else to go stayed on campus. The program switched to remote learning in May and began working to supply students with laptops, tablets, and internet access. My repeated inquiries to the Department of Labor last fall on the status of the remote learning plans went unanswered, and there has been no data published publicly on the number of students who received a laptop or were accessing remote instruction. But as of the July IG report, the transition had not been completed. It still hadn’t been finished as of October 2020, according to a person I spoke with who has knowledge of the matter but was not authorized to talk.
The Job Corps program came nearly to a standstill in the fall of 2020. Just 9,138 students enrolled nationwide in all of 2020. By the end of February 2021, however, Job Corps centers were in the process of returning students to campus. Though the question of whether the program ever successfully transitioned to online is now effectively moot, it is still unclear how—or whether—the program can recover the students it lost.
Proponents of Job Corps’ residential model argue that living on campus can provide students with a clean break from negative influences in their lives. “It’s good for people who need a safe place,” Malcolm Little said.
“The folks who come to Job Corps need to be there in order to succeed,” says Grace Kilbane, who served two separate stints as the national director of Job Corps, most recently under President Barack Obama. “I met students who were homeless or had aged out of foster care and had nowhere to go,” she told me. “That need has not gone away—if anything, it’s gotten greater.”
Yet the residential model is a major driver of the program’s expense as well as its persistent problems with safety and security. “Centers do what they can to create a positive culture,” says Jeffrey Turgeon, who worked for nearly five years at a Job Corps center in Massachusetts and is now the executive director of the MassHire Central Region Workforce Board. “But any time you’ve got a bunch of young people, especially young people who are at risk and haven’t been successful in the past, they’re going to come with whatever baggage or drama they bring with them.”
Shimira Mills, the Job Corps graduate who is now an HVAC technician, said discipline was a big part of life on campus, which she described as having a “boot camp type of vibe.” “We got graded on a day-to-day basis on how our rooms were and chores that we had to complete every morning and every evening,” she said. “If you’ve ever been to boot camp, they had the same system. Or jail—whichever one.” Unlike a college campus, days were strictly regimented. Students woke up at 6 a.m.; breakfast was at 7; classes began at 8.
Many of her classmates did not make it through the program, Mills said. Her roommate was expelled after getting into a fight with another student. Other students were kicked out after failing drug tests, which are part of Job Corps’ “zero-tolerance” policy toward alcohol and drugs. Of the 45,173 “separations” (graduations or other departures) from Job Corps in 2018, 65 percent of students left for jobs or the military and around 7 percent went on to further education, implying that the remaining 28 percent either left without completing the program or graduated without a meaningful placement.
Both Mills and Little said their rooms were searched from time to time. “Every once in a while I’d come back and all my stuff from my dresser and my closet would be on the bed,” Little said.
The former student Ricky Gass was among a minority of students who commuted to his Job Corps center every day. Unlike most centers, which are located in rural or out-of-the-way areas, the Edison Job Corps center he attended in New Jersey was reachable by public transportation, and Gass had child care obligations for his daughter. “Sometimes I felt like I wanted to be on campus, but if I was staying there I would have possibly gotten into a lot of different situations—like females, the drama. There was a lot of testosterone,” he said. “Some situations I was shielded from by not being there on campus.”
Phillip-Matthew Golden, who taught at the Woodstock Center in Maryland for four years, told me he witnessed a significant amount of turnover among the staff who managed the dorms. “They handled a lot of volatile situations,” he said. “They tried really hard, they really cared, but it was hard to keep people there.”
On occasion, that volatility has spilled over into violence. In August 2015, four students at the Homestead Job Corps Center near Miami were arrested and charged with hacking to death a 17-year-old fellow student with a machete and then setting his body on fire. Earlier that year, a 20-year-old student at the St. Louis Job Corps Center was arrested for allegedly shooting and killing another student in the dorms. Between 2007 and 2016, the GAO found, Job Corps centers reported 49,836 safety and security incidents, including 6,541 incidents involving drugs and 9,299 assaults.
The need to maintain safety is just one reason why the program’s residential model is expensive. There are also more prosaic concerns, such as meals, laundry, water and electricity bills, and building maintenance.
Job Corps operates on what is essentially a franchise model—much like McDonald’s—where a central office dictates the operation of individual centers in conformity with a single standard. Just like how every McDonald’s must make its fries in exactly the same way, Job Corps contractors are obligated to deliver education, training, and residential services that are standardized across the program’s 123 centers. With the exception of roughly two dozen centers run by the U.S. Forest Service, private contractors are effectively Job Corps franchisees.
Center specifications are spelled out in a more than 1,000-page “Policy and Requirements Handbook,” which governs every aspect of center operation, including recruitment and screening of prospective students; curriculum; discipline; placement services; and tracking of performance metrics. Contractors must, for instance, have written plans for “blood borne pathogens,” “respiratory protection,” and “hearing conservation” (to protect students’ hearing). Meal service is prescribed in exacting detail. “Meals shall be planned using a minimum of a 28-day cycle cafeteria menu,” the handbook dictates. Students must be offered, for example, “five choices of fresh or frozen vegetables and/or fruits,” and “low-fat and/or fat free milk and dairy alternatives and water.”
The intent of this specificity is consistency across centers (although in truth, performance reports issued by the Department of Labor show that centers vary widely in quality). The downside is that few contractors can comply with the complexity and sheer scale of the Job Corps requirements. As a result, a relatively small number of companies, mostly for-profit, effectively hold a monopoly on the operation of centers.
Some of the biggest players in this fraternity are conglomerates that run Job Corps centers as one of several lines of business. Among these is Job Corps’ largest contractor, the Utah-based for-profit Management & Training Corporation, or MTC, which operates five detention centers for ICE, 21 correctional facilities, and 22 Job Corps centers, according to its website. For other companies, running Job Corps is their only business. Adams and Associates, Inc., for example, runs 14 centers, and the Career Systems Development Corporation runs 12 centers, according to their websites. Another private company, MINACT, runs centers in seven states.
The universe of Job Corps contractors is strangely opaque. The National Job Corps Association, the trade association for Job Corps contractors, does not disclose its membership. When I reached out to MTC for an interview, I received this email reply from their managing director of corporate communications, Issa Arnita:
We are not conducting interviews. I would recommend you contact the Department of Labor which administers the Job Corps program.
(The Labor Department, as noted above, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) MTC’s website does not include a page with the names and bios of its executive team. The same is true of Adams and Associates.
What is clear, however, is that Job Corps contracts involve big money. Career Systems Development, for instance, was awarded a $99.6 million contract in 2019 to run the San Diego Job Corps Center. MTC has won almost $305 million in contracts just since 2017. Among the contracts awarded to Adams and Associates is a deal to run the Grafton Job Corps Center in Massachusetts, worth nearly $53 million. Many of these companies have been reeling in lucrative Job Corps contracts for years, if not decades. MINACT, for example, opened shop in 1978 when its founder “successfully competed for the company’s first Job Corps Center contract,” according to its website. Career Systems Development notes on its site that it was one of Job Corps’ original contractors when the program launched in 1964. It still runs 13 sites today.
One result of having so few players is that much of Job Corps’ business gets awarded under noncompetitive contracts, which puts the government at the risk of overpaying for services. In one 2019 report, the GAO found that Job Corps was running 68 of 97 centers in 2016 under “bridge contracts”—either noncompetitive extensions of expired contracts or short-term noncompetitive contracts. In 42 of those cases, contracts were awarded to companies that had already lost their Job Corps contracts and were formally protesting the decision. The result was that these companies were able to squeeze hundreds of thousands of contract dollars from the government while their protests were being resolved.
But could the federal government do a better job if it ran the centers directly instead of relying on contractors? Likely not. While a few of the centers still run by the Forest Service are among the best performers, others have been among the worst. In 2014, the Labor Department shut down the Treasure Lake Job Corps center, located within a national wildlife refuge in Oklahoma and run by the Forest Service. The closure came after years of underperformance in which fewer than half of the enrolled students finished their training and barely half of graduates found jobs.
Despite Job Corps’ flaws, politics, inertia, and the lack of scalable alternatives have all conspired to maintain the status quo. Every state has a center, which has helped the program maintain congressional favor. NJCA, the Job Corps contractors’ trade association, has a small political action committee that makes donations to congressional campaigns. It also maintains the Congressional Friends of Job Corps Caucus, which boasts 89 members from across the ideological spectrum, according to the NJCA’s currently available list.
Part of the program’s political stickiness is that Job Corps centers are often an important source of local employment. “In rural areas or in a smaller town, [Job Corps] is a player in town,” said one former senior Labor Department official who asked not to be identified in order to preserve their current relationships with members of Congress. “They have jobs, and it’s something people are proud of in those communities.”
As a result, members of Congress can be reluctant to challenge the program. For example, this former official told me of one instance where a member refused to entertain the idea of closing a poorly performing center. “We said, ‘Look, we’re going to have to close it. It’s not good for the students, and I wouldn’t send my own kid there,’ but the congressperson pushed really hard not to close it,” the official said. “They really loved having it in their community.”
In 2019, the Trump administration proposed closing or privatizing the 25 centers run by the Forest Service, which would have resulted in the layoff of more than 1,100 federal employees in eight states. The plan, however, quickly ran into bipartisan opposition, and was scrapped in a matter of weeks.
Progressive advocates who know that the Job Corps system is flawed are also loathe to criticize it for fear of handing conservatives an excuse to kill the program and cut funding for an already neglected area of policy. Given that low-income young adults aren’t a powerful political constituency, advocates say it’s unlikely that money taken from Job Corps would be redirected toward other youth-serving programs.
Nevertheless, the crisis young Americans are currently facing requires a better solution. Soaring youth unemployment rates should serve as an impetus for the program’s reform—and for substantial investment in new approaches. Sargent Shriver’s vision of a second chance for young people in poverty is more relevant today than it has ever been. But young Americans deserve more and better than Job Corps.
There are some obvious short-term reforms to the program, such as targeting it to the older students who benefit the most. “They should tilt it more toward 20-to-24-year-olds, and if it’s effective for that group they should grow it,” says Harry Holzer, a labor economist at Georgetown University. Job Corps could also open more commuter campuses to benefit students like Ricky Gass, who have child care or other obligations that make living on campus impossible.
The larger priority, however, is to dramatically expand investment in pilot programs and new approaches that show promise.
More money, for instance, should be going to expand apprenticeships, which are effective and relatively inexpensive. “There aren’t a lot of substitutes for getting young people to work in real employment situations with real supervisors, real mentors, and a real occupational goal,” says Robert Lerman, an economist at the Urban Institute. A well-structured apprenticeship, Lerman says, could cost the federal government as little as $5,000 per participant, given that employers pick up much of the tab.
More funding could also go to programs like Year Up, which trains students for careers in IT, sales, software development, and more, and places them in paid internships with mentoring and other support. Since its founding in 2000, the organization has enrolled more than 29,000 students, and reports an average starting salary of $42,000 for its graduates. Also promising is the National Guard Youth Challenge Program, a boot camp–style residential program that has achieved relatively strong results among 16-to-18-year-olds—the group that Job Corps has failed to benefit. Evaluations find that graduates earned, on average, 20 percent more than non-attendees and were 86 percent more likely to go on to college.
None of these programs, however, is a panacea. In the post-pandemic economy, it’s unclear how many employers will be able to afford to hire apprentices. Apprenticeships also tend to be selective programs that favor job-ready applicants, as is also the case with Year Up. Only 28 states offer the National Guard Challenge Program, and its military focus isn’t for everyone.
In an ideal world, young adults would have a robust set of choices to help them reconnect to school and work. “Young people need a myriad of options, and certain strategies are going to work better for certain circumstances,” Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Youth Network, told me. The problem today is that there are too few options, most of them underfunded or—like Job Corps—inadequate, while the demand for assistance has exploded. “Did the pandemic stress an already stressed system?” Fulmore-Townsend asked. “Absolutely.”
Recently, the Reconnecting Youth Campaign, a coalition of youth advocacy organizations, called for a dramatic expansion of funding for youth programs, including $500 million for the Corporation for National and Community Service, which runs AmeriCorps, and $5.5 billion for summer jobs and paid work experience programs.
These investments would be a good start, but they are long overdue. As Congress and the Biden administration work to rebuild the economy, they need to ensure that the nation’s young people aren’t left behind.