Senate panel to examine Job Corps enrollment freeze on Tuesday

 

Lawmakers on Tuesday plan ask why Job Corps halted new enrollments in January and exceeded its budget for a second straight year, as top program officials testify before the Senate panel that oversees the federal job-training program.

Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.), who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, said he expects program leaders to explain how the budget gap, estimated at more than $60 million, could happen.

“I want to know why the shortfall occurred and who is responsible for it, especially in light of the offers of help from folks who run the programs on a daily basis — the ideas they offered to close the gap,” Casey said.

The National Job Corps Association, which represents the contractors that operate Job Corps training centers, wrote to the program in October and January outlining budgeting options to help avoid the enrollment stoppage.

The group recommended that Job Corps recoup funds from local job centers that spent tens of millions less than expected, and it suggested shifting nearly $16 million from the program’s capital budget, which includes funds for new construction and maintenance.

“I want to know why those recommendations were rejected or not considered at all,” Casey said.

Job Corps, a 48-year-old program that falls under the purview of the the Labor Department’s Employment and Training division, never halted enrollment until last year, when it stopped taking new registrants briefly during the summer and in December.

The latest enrollment freeze, which started in January, came just weeks before President Obama began promoting new plans for job creation, job training and middle-class growth by taking his State of the Union address on the road.

Democratic lawmakers following the Job Corps’ budget issues have complained about a lack of responsiveness from the Labor Department, which declined in February to justify its cost overruns to a House subcommittee requesting an explanation.

“It’s particular disturbing because of the value of this program,” Casey said. “Its been around for decades, and it’s helped young people overcome significant barriers and find work.”

In 2010, the Labor Department restructured how it handles Job Corps, removing the budgeting and procurement operations from the Office of Job Corps and placing them in separate divisions within the Employment and Training division.

Contractors who run the Job Corps training centers say the program’s budgeting has been disorganized since the changes occurred. They have also complained that top officials lack the institutional knowledge needed to balance its finances and that they have largely ignored the advice of stakeholders.

A Labor Department spokesman told The Washington Post last month that Job Corps was conducting “an exhaustive review of its current operating costs in order to make changes to ensure that program costs are sustainable in the future.”

After incurring a deficit during its 2011 budget cycle, the agency told the Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety that its restructuring plan would help avoid future budget problems.

Instead, Job Corps’ cost overruns grew nearly twice as large during the current budget cycle, according to the National Job Corps Association.

The Labor Department’s inspector general’s office expects to complete an audit of Job Corps budgeting by May.

Witnesses testifying at Tuesday’s hearing will include Jane Oates, Assistant Secretary of the Labor Department’s employment and training division, as well as Antoine Dixon, the national director of Job Corps for the U.S. Forest Service, and Labor Department Assistant Inspector General Elliott Lewis.

 

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Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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Josh Hicks | March 11, 2013