At Potomac Job Corps Center, working to bridge the skills gap


Potomac Job Corps Center construction students build an outdoor structure as part of their carpentry class. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Jeffrey MacMillan )

Dajuan Conyers was tired of bouncing from job to job.

A lifelong resident of Southeast Washington, Conyers spent his early 20s working construction gigs, but it never felt like a steady career. And to get that, he decided he needed training beyond his high school diploma.

So Conyers turned to Job Corps, a Labor Department program that aims to help at-risk youth obtain vocational training and certifications. At the District outpost of the program, known as the Potomac Job Corps Center, he began studying to be a pharmacy technician.

“To me, it just feels like someone who works at a pharmacy is someone you can look up to,” said Conyers, 24.

Conyers has spent the past 10 months learning how to manage inventory, fill prescriptions and parse patient profiles. Now a certified pharmacy technician with externship experience at a Giant pharmacy, Conyers feels like he’s well-positioned to land a full-time pharmacy position when he completes his stint at Job Corps later this month.

Conyers’s progress is precisely the kind of change Job Corps’s creators were hoping to foster when the program was established 50 years ago as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society program. Students can train in a variety of trades, including electrical repair, cement masonry, culinary arts and plumbing. The centers also offer English language classes and the opportunity to earn a high school diploma or a high school equivalency.

There are 125 Job Corps centers around the country, and amid a tepid economic recovery, the training they provide may be especially critical in neighborhoods like Conyers’s. While the unemployment rate is 4.9 percent in the Washington region overall, the rate in Ward 8 was a staggering 18.9 percent in February.

Roxanne Chin, the center director, said the Potomac Job Corps Center is attempting to play a vital role in improving the employment situation in its surrounding community.

“We like to be the shining light in Ward 8,” Chin said. “We like to see ourselves as that safe haven.”

During its most recent program year, the Potomac Job Corps center graduated 273 students; 242 of them are currently employed.

In addition to serving the young adults who are enrolled in the program, the center offers its facilities for job fairs and training initiatives for the broader community. For example, the center was a site for a recruitment drive for Goodwill of Greater Washington’s job program that aims to prepare workers for jobs at the Marriott Marquis convention center hotel.

Coping with a freeze

Last year was an especially challenging year for Job Corps centers across the country: Amid a budget shortfall of about $62 million, the Labor Department ordered a temporary enrollment freeze at the centers. The Labor Department’s inspector general later said in a report that the cost overruns were a result of mismanagement.

Chin said the Potomac center tried to take best advantage of that time by expanding its outreach initiatives so that when the facility was again able to admit new students, there would be a pipeline of people ready to participate.

Francis Cole, a regional director of the Job Corps, said the freeze ended up being a time for centers to rethink their recruitment efforts.

“It kind of gave us an opportunity to clean up and expedite things,” Cole said. “We actually had a chance to take a look at what we were doing and tweak the process [to be] more geared toward the students that we’re serving.”

As part of that process, they moved to improve their Web outreach efforts by beefing up their YouTube presence and revamping their Facebook page so users could apply to the program directly from the social network.

The freeze was lifted in April 2013, but centers were required by the Labor Department to temporarily reduce their enrollment capacities upon reopening. The Potomac center today is full based on that adjusted capacity, with about 380 students on campus.

Teaching basic skills

To figure out what kinds of positions and skills are in greatest demand in the region, the Potomac Job Corps Center relies on a group known as the Center Industry Council. The group is comprised of local employers and community leaders, and it provides advice on ways the center might adapt its curriculum to give graduates the best chance of finding a job in the area. As the economic recovery hums along, internship coordinator Myra Deloatch said an increasing number of employers are offering internships to Job Corps students. She is working with employers such as Giant, CVS, Marriott International, Amtrak, the National Park Service and the Interior Department to connect students with such opportunities.

In addition to learning the ropes of a particular trade, Job Corps places a heavy emphasis on the soft skills needed to excel in a job interview and at workplaces. Because the young participants often have minimal experience, even these basic principles can be new.

“We’ve got to get you there on time,” said Greg Crawford, a career counselor at the center. “We’ve got to get you to say ‘Thank you.’ We’ve got to get you to say ‘You’re welcome.’ I’ve got to get them to call in the morning and say, ‘I really don’t feel well, I have an emergency, I’m not coming in today.’ ”

And because most Job Corps participants live in dormitories on the campus, students can also be in for a major adjustment to their lifestyles.

“The hardest part was to stop my old habits,” said Dominic Boney, 22, from the Barry Farm neighborhood. “Staying out late, playing by my own rules, being a teenager.”

Though Chin said Boney has adjusted well to his new routine and is excelling in the cement masonry program, she said his experience is not uncommon for Job Corps students.

“All the things that are bad, in most cases, they’ve experienced,” Chin said. “And so sometimes they don’t know how to manage the good. They’re waiting for the other shoe to drop sometimes. And [we say], ‘No, we simply believe in you. You can do this.’”

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economic news.
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