WASHINGTON -- Countless students are waiting to get into the Pittsburgh Job Corps Center, and thousands more like them are being shut out of other center locations nationwide.
Citing a shortage of funds, the Department of Labor abruptly closed the door to new enrollees in January and could keep them shut out until summer. There's only enough money to pay for students currently enrolled in the federally funded education and job training program for low-income 16-to-24-year-olds.
The enrollment freeze won't last longer than June 30, according to labor officials, and centers can continue to accept homeless and runaway teens or those placed with Job Centers for foster care. They'll also continue to help current students complete their programs.
Without the freeze, the $1.1 billion program is on target to overspend its budget by $61.5 million, and U.S. Sen Bob Casey, D-Pa., wants to know why.
That's why he's called department officials to testify today before the Health, Education, Pensions and Labor Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, which he chairs.
"If steps could have been taken to avoid this result, we should take them," he said in a conference call last week with reporters. "What I'm going to be asking the Department of Labor is: How did this shortfall occur? Who's responsible?"
Assistant Labor Secretary Jane Oates took explained the problem in a four-page letter she sent to former subcommittee Chairwoman Patty Murray, R-Wash., and 15 other senators, including Mr. Casey.
In the letter, Ms. Oates attributed the shortfall to growth in expenditures and "serious weaknesses ... in financial management processes that led to a failure to identify and adjust for rising costs in a timely manner."
Cost-saving measures implemented by Job Corps management and the federal Employment and Training Administration "were not aggressive enough to allow the program to stay within budget," she wrote.
"In retrospect, it is clear that we did not act as quickly or as decisively as circumstances required," she wrote.
The shortfall is not related to $85 billion in automatic federal cuts known as the sequester.
Ms. Oates wrote that the department has been trying to make up for the shortfall by transferring funds from other programs, sporadically suspending enrollment for a month at a time, requiring Job Corps centers to submit financial reports every three days, ending a contract for outside accounting services, working with contractors to identify cost-saving measures, reducing student stipends, reducing national advertising and increasing student-to-teacher ratios.
Those changes didn't save enough money to stave off an enrollment freeze, Ms. Oates wrote to the senators.
She is expected to provide a more detailed explanation this afternoon when she testifies along with Antoine Dixon, national director of Job Corps, and Elliot Lewis, assistant inspector general.
Job Corps is a government funded program that provides career technical training and high-school equivalency education for young people who have encountered barriers to entering the workforce. It serves about 100,000 low-income people a year in 125 centers across the country, including four in Pennsylvania. The centers offer counseling, job training, housing, child care, transportation and academic programs. In Pittsburgh, many students are working toward associate degrees through Job Corps partnership programs with area community colleges.
"We are providing cutting-edge training to young people who are disproportionately represented in the jobs [they are training for]. If you like to see businesses getting young qualified people, you should be supporting Job Corps," said Andrew Carpenter, executive vice president of Career Systems Development Corp., a for-profit company that manages nine Job Corps centers nationwide, including Pittsburgh's.
Private contractors operate 97 of the nation's Job Corps centers, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture operates 28.
Mr. Carpenter said his company is contracted to provide services to 850 students at a time in Pittsburgh, but enrollment already is down to 655 after the freeze abruptly took effect Jan. 28. Enrollment is expected to drop to 350 by June, according to projections released by Mr. Casey's office. That will translate in a reduction of staff, too, but the impact is unclear.
The Department of Labor has asked the Pittsburgh center to cut about $500,000 or about 3 percent of its budget, Mr. Carpenter said.
The 124 other centers across the country have been asked to make similar cuts.
Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: email@example.com, 703-996-9292 or @pgPoliTweets. First Published March 12, 2013 4:00 AM