McKINNEY, Tex. — The North Texas Job Corps Center squats behind a chain-link fence here in a suburb north of Dallas, accessible only through a gate manned 24 hours a day by guards hired to keep out intruders — and to keep in the center’s 436 students.
“It’s a little bit like prison,” said Donnell Strange, 17, who joined the electrical apprenticeship program about six months ago after struggling in school back home in Mansfield, near Dallas.
This is not what the founders of a flagship federal program with a $1.7 billion annual budget — an iconic Great Society program meant to prepare impoverished young people for the work force — had in mind. Started in 1964 by R. Sargent Shriver, President John F. Kennedy’s brother-in-law, as a ladder out of hopelessness, Job Corps today has become a 20th-century holdover incapable of meeting the demands of a national shortage of job-ready workers.
“Job Corps doesn’t work,” said Teresa Sanders, a former teacher at the North Texas center who quit in frustration in 2015 after a rash of violent episodes inside the center, but who keeps in touch with dozens of former students through a Facebook page. “The adults are making money, the politicians are getting photo ops. But we are all failing the students.”
In April, the Labor Department’s own inspector general starkly concluded that “Job Corps could not demonstrate beneficial job training outcomes.”
The labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, who oversees Job Corps, is the latest in a succession of federal officials, starting in the Reagan administration, who has vowed to overhaul the program. Job Corps, Mr. Acosta said in an email, “requires fundamental reform.”
“It is not enough to make changes at the margins,” he added. “We need large-scale changes.”
Job Corps — from which two million students have graduated since it was started — boasts some inspiring success stories among the 50,000 students who enroll every year. Two-thirds of them high school dropouts, the students train for more than 100 trades, including welding, automotive repair, plumbing, electrical work and the hospital and hospitality industries.
But at a cost to taxpayers of $15,000 to $45,000 per student, it was a ripe target for President Trump’s proposed budget cuts. This year, he unsuccessfully tried to cut funding for the program, which principally serves black and Hispanic youths, despite his pledge that job training and reducing minority unemployment were his top priorities.
Its budget, protected by lawmakers in both parties, is safe for now. Yet almost everybody involved in the program — including students and the labor secretary — questions whether the target population of inner-city and rural youths is well served by a 50-year-old work force model based on housing students in fenced-in former military bases and shuttered hospitals, often miles from the jobs they need.
Jeff Smith, a University of Wisconsin professor who studies job programs, said a major quandary is that worthwhile training programs for the poor seldom yield stunningly positive results. “Work force development is very hard, and the results you see aren’t always great,” he said. “If these populations were easily employable, they would already have jobs.”
A Need for Workers
The current employment boom should be a moment of opportunity for Job Corps: Companies report 6.7 million jobs unfilled because of the shortage of skilled workers, even as millions of inner-city and rural youths languish in poverty or dead-end jobs.
Superficially, the system seems successful. Centers report that, on average, 87 percent of graduates at most centers were placed in jobs. But many of those placements were in the same low-wage, low-skill jobs at fast-food restaurants or in the military that they could have gotten without the program, studies have shown.
The inspector general’s report in April, studying the program’s outcomes, found that the training offered no discernible long-term benefit for graduates when compared with the noncollege-educated population in general.
Although the program’s most successful participants have been able to earn $40,000 or more in their chosen trades, the Labor Department found that after five years, Job Corps participants on average earned $12,486 a year, barely above the poverty threshold, according to the limited payroll data investigators were able to obtain.
The report also found the most serious problems with post-graduation placement services. The program could not account for 94 percent of $50 million spent nationally each year on transition counseling for graduates.
Its relatively remote location, a 40-minute commute north of Dallas, makes it hard to compete with more agile, nonresidential job training programs in the city like CitySquare, a local community development organization that runs jobs programs and a food pantry. When students complained that they were missing out on job offers, the group’s leaders scaled back a 12-week construction trades course to six weeks.
“We aren’t tied down, so we can move quickly,” said Jarie Bradley who runs CitySquare.
One vocational instructor at North Texas, all too aware of the program’s shortcomings, has tried to focus on the barest basics of being a wage-earning employee: Show up on time, do not cuss out the boss and refrain from drinking or getting high during work hours.
But for the two or three students he feels are work-ready, he offers different advice: Drop out of the Job Corps the minute some one offers you a decent job paying around $12 per hour. The teacher wanted his name withheld because his approach conflicted with that of the management company.
Students, teachers and administrators at North Texas cited the legal requirement that the centers house the students they serve as the single biggest obstacle to meaningful reform. The dormitories have housed students who brought with them grudges from their neighborhoods in Dallas, sometimes stoked by gang affiliations.
But officials at the National Job Corps Association, funded by the operators, argue that the dormitory model is the program’s greatest virtue, plucking young people from dangerous neighborhoods and giving them vital life skills.
“This is the toughest population to deal with, these at-risk kids, and most of them wouldn’t make it without Job Corps. They would be a drag on society,” said Jim Lindenmayer, the association’s chairman.
Mr. Lindenmayer conceded that many centers were not responsive enough to local employment conditions, but laid much of the blame on “a ton of regulations” put out by the Labor Department that squelch innovation.
Federal officials said that the conditions at some of the centers necessitated a heavier hand, especially when it comes to enforcing a nationwide no-tolerance of violence and drugs at the centers, a chronic problem. Operators, according to a 2017 report by the Government Accountability Office, often played down or covered up episodes to make it appear that their facilities were better run than they appeared.
North Texas was one of worst, officials said. Fistfights were commonplace. Drug use was so rampant that one student filmed another snorting white powder off a textbook in the middle of a class in 2014. A student was sexually assaulted in his bunk by several other male residents of his dormitory, which the center’s management did not initially report to the local police, as required by law.
The situation has improved under the management of new operator, Horizons Youth Services, which runs several of Job Corps’ highest-performing centers. But students in McKinney are still grasping for their elusive share of the prosperity around them, which they see etched in the Dallas skyline by dozens of construction cranes.
Protection from Congress
The biggest hurdle Mr. Acosta faces is Congress, which jealously controls the most arcane details of Job Corps to keep the Labor Department from shuttering it or cutting the head count at centers in lawmakers’ districts.
Few federal programs have ever enjoyed such broad bipartisan political support. Progressives see it as an enduring commitment to the poor rooted in a golden age of liberalism. Conservative lawmakers support Job Corps because it encourages low-income young people to work hard.
The website for the trade association of Job Corps contractors is plastered with pictures of smiling politicians from both parties. The centerpiece is a snapshot of Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, hugging a Job Corps student in Morganfield — one of seven centers in his home state.
During the Obama administration, budget officials floated the idea of shuttering a handful of the lowest-performing centers, according to former aides. The idea ran into immediate resistance from members of Congress in both parties.
In the end, officials succeeded in closing only three, two of them underutilized rural forestry service sites in Arkansas and Oklahoma, plus the troubled center in Homestead, Fla., the site of a grisly murder in 2015.
The Labor Department had even less success carrying out another key recommendation: widening the pool of contractors running the centers beyond the six large management companies that run 63 of them.
Mr. Acosta said he wants to break that impasse by using new performance measures to force companies to focus on moving students into jobs. Reimbursements have historically been pegged to benchmarks like graduation rates and certificate programs, which are important but do not necessarily lead to employment.
Mr. Acosta, two officials familiar with his plans said, is considering turning 10 to 12 of the 123 existing centers into pilot projects — the most sweeping changes he can make without congressional approval. He has reached out to governors in several states to gauge interest in converting existing centers into pre-apprenticeship academies based on the National Guard’s YouthChallenge program, a 17-month program for high school-age youths.
He is considering increasing department partnerships with community colleges based, in part, on a successful collaboration between the Ottumwa, Iowa, center and local educational institutions.
But he has not ruled out trying to close centers, and is looking into the possibility of separating younger students from older ones, who are in need of quick-turnaround jobs training.
All of these moves are aimed at jolting the system out of its doldrums. Mr. Acosta’s larger goal, aides said, is to supplant some for-profit companies that run the centers with more innovative operators.
Mr. Lindenmayer said his association is supportive of the changes. But former federal officials who tried to overhaul the system are skeptical of the prospects for reform.
“You have a program with a rich and complicated history that’s one of the biggest leftovers from the war on poverty, and it is enormously complicated to make any significant changes,” said Eric M. Seleznow, who tried to revamp the system as head of the department’s worker training division during Mr. Obama’s second term.
“This program has helped a large number of young adults,” he said, “but competing interests from Congress, program operators, advocates, as well as complex legal requirements present a lot of challenges.”
At the North Texas center in McKinney, Delvino Yanmai, 21, who enrolled in the program after struggling through a succession of dead-end jobs, had only one thing in mind.
“There’s some bad stuff and there’s some good stuff,” he said about the program as he headed home to the Dallas area for the weekend. “But I don’t care about anything but getting a job. I just want a job.”