WASHINGTON (AP) — House and Senate lawmakers are investigating a nearly $100 million shortfall at the federal Job Corps program that has prompted the Labor Department to freeze enrollment at all 125 job centers around the country.
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., has called on the agency's inspector general to investigate "serious questions about the management by the department" that will prevent 30,000 disadvantaged and at-risk youth from getting job training this year.
Last month, the Job Corps announced it would stop accepting any new enrollees from Jan. 28 until at least June 30. Some exceptions are being made for applicants who are homeless, runaways or in the foster care system.
"If there were mistakes made that led to this problem, the ones losing out here are going to be young people at risk," Casey said Friday in an interview with The Associated Press. "Apparently, Labor Department officials were admitting that they made some kind of mistake with the budget" to people working at the Job Corps centers.
Labor Department spokesman Carl Fillichio said the Job Corps began taking steps last year to reduce operating costs, such as curtailing contracts, reducing administrative costs and slashing the national TV advertising budget.
"Unfortunately, the savings from these efforts have not been sufficient to meet the budget demands of the current program year," he said. "The decision to suspend enrollment was not made lightly."
The Job Corps, which began as part of President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" program in the 1960s, offers free education and vocational job training for students ages 16 to 24. It serves about 60,000 students each year with an annual budget of $1.7 billion.
The goal is to help steer young people away from poverty and crime into productive careers through a program that includes supervised dormitory housing, meals, medical care and counseling. Those enrolled usually complete training within a few months to two years and receive help making the transition to new careers or getting further education. The government pays private contractors to run the job centers.
In 2011, the Labor Department announced a $39 million funding shortfall in the Job Corps program. The agency then took emergency steps to fill the gap, such as transferring funds from other employment and training programs.
But the shortfall continued and increased to an additional $60 million in 2012. As a result, the Job Corps announced on January 18 that it was suspending all new enrollments at centers nationwide.
A total freeze on accepting new students is virtually unprecedented in the nearly 50-year history of the program, said LaVera Leonard, president of the National Job Corps Association, a group that includes private contractors and labor and community groups that support the Job Corps' goals.