Senate panel hears of Job Corps problems

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WASHINGTON -- Job Corps Centers across the country closed their doors to new students in January citing inefficient financial controls within the Department of Labor, but the job training program's problems aren't just financial, an auditor told a Senate panel Tuesday.

Program operators allowed ineligible students to take program slots, exaggerated the number of graduates placed in jobs related to their Job Corps training, didn't ensure students were being taught skills needed for meaningful jobs, failed to enforce discipline and neglected to inspect food service areas, testified Elliot P. Lewis, assistant inspector general for the Labor Department.

Those were the findings of a series of recent audits, Mr. Lewis said. Now his office is looking into financial management to find out why the nation's only federally funded residential job training program is running $61.5 million short or about 4 percent of its $1.7 billion budget.

Mr. Lewis is among three officials invited to testify before the Health, Education, Pensions and Labor Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety chaired by Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who has taken a strong interest in the failure of the Job Corps Program to meet the needs of the at-risk youth and young adults it is supposed to serve.

Mr. Lewis' findings are concerning and raise new questions, Mr. Casey said after the hearing. "There's a real sense of urgency to fix this," he said.

Private contractors operate 97 of the nation's 125 Job Corps centers including Pittsburgh's, while the Department of Agriculture operates 28 under the National Forest Service. The centers -- including one in Pittsburgh -- offer counseling, job training, housing, child care, transportation and academic programs to people ages 16 to 24 who have encountered barriers to entering the workforce, such as homelessness or a lack of education and training.

Assistant Labor Secretary Jan Oates said Job Corps is a quality program that managed to find job placement for thousands of students.

"We do need to do more to ensure the program is sustainable," she testified.

Senators at the hearing said they believe in the program, too, but not in running it without proper oversight.

"In the end, this is about basic budgeting and making sure you can account for public dollars and that you can make accurate -- reasonably accurate -- accounting projections," Mr. Casey said.

Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson, the subcommittee's ranking Republican, said Ms. Oates should have considered other ways to reduce spending before pulling the plug on new enrollment.

"I'm sure there were other alternatives," he said.

Ms. Oates said the department cut everything it could that it had control over but still came up $61.5 million short. The department identified only two ways to cut that much: ending the program a year early for all students or shutting down enrollment.

"While neither of those is a good decision we decided to freeze enrollment because we felt we had to fulfill our commitment to the students" already enrolled, she said.

Ms. Oates said contractors are reimbursed for costs as they are incurred, and some students cost more to help than others depending on the kind of help they need.

"As long as the cost is allowable ... I have to pay those costs whenever a vendor submits them," she said.

The shortfall is not the vendors' fault, she said, saying that she takes full responsibility for lack of proper financial planning and underestimation of the cost of operating three new centers.

"This was inadequate monitoring," Ms. Oates said.

She said the program had no comptroller until she hired one in August, four months after she first realized Job Corps was headed toward financial crisis. That surprised Mr. Casey, who now plans to open an inquiry into whether other government programs are operating without comptrollers.

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Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com.


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