The Washington Post

Job Corps ends three-month enrollment freeze

The Labor Department lifted its controversial hold on Job Corps enrollments Monday, ending an action the agency took in January to deal with an estimated $60 million shortfall for the federal job-training program.

The move comes as good news for individuals who were locked out of the program in a stubbornly sluggish job market, but the Job Corps still plans to reduce enrollment by 20 percent, according to the National Job Corps Association (NJCA), which represents the contractors that run the training centers.

The Job Corps, which enrolls about 60,000 students each year, has encountered two consecutive budget deficits since the Labor Department moved the program’s budgeting and procurement operations from the Office of Job Corps to the Employment and Training division. The previous shortfall reached $30 million and prompted the Labor Department to freeze Job Corps enrollment for the first time in its 48-year history last summer and again in December.

Assistant Secretary of Labor Jane Oates said during a Senate hearing last month that the deficits were the result of budgeting missteps, including “inadequate staffing and monitoring on the part of the Job Corps program.”

The department said Monday that the enrollment freeze would end immediately.

The NJCA estimated that the hold blocked at least 10,000 prospective trainees from the program and cost at least 700 people their jobs at training centers.

The Labor Department acknowledged in its statement that the enrollment freeze had caused strife and promised to put the program’s fiscal house in order.

“The suspension of enrollment has been difficult for students and families,” said acting Labor Secretary Seth D. Harris. “The department is committed to ensuring that this important program is administered efficiently . . . and in the best interest of students and families.”

Harris also thanked Congress for providing the department with budgeting flexibility to help deal with the program’s shortfall. Lawmakers approved a stopgap budget in March that required Labor to shift between $10 million and $30 million in unobligated funds to the Job Corps for the remainder of the fiscal year.

The NJCA this year had proposed budgeting options to help the program avoid an enrollment freeze. One of its primary proposals involved recouping $24 million in cost underruns from job centers that spent less than expected during the first two quarters of the current budget cycle.

According to NJCA government relations director Anand Vimalassery, the Labor Department agreed in March to modify operator contracts to reclaim the unspent funds. Labor Department spokesman Steve Barr said the agency had eliminated its projected shortfall for the current budget cycle. He said contract modifications and the enrollment freeze represented “a big part” of the savings, but he did not have numbers available.

Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), who chairs the committee that oversees the Job Corps program, applauded the decision to resume enrollment. “This is good news for students in Pennsylvania and around the country as they seek skills needed to successfully enter the workforce,” he said in a statement on Monday.

In February, Casey called for an inspector general’s investigation into how the Job Corps program ended up with severe deficits for the past two years. That analysis is expected to be completed next month, according to the Labor Department’s inspector general. “It is disturbing that financial mismanagement led to a three-month enrollment freeze that prevented students from attending Job Corps and led to job loss at local Job Corps centers,” Casey said.

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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