KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
As we continue our coverage of youth unemployment, we turn our attention this morning to a program called Job Corps. It is one of the nation's largest job training programs for low-income youth. It was created 50 years ago by President Lyndon Johnson -part of his war on poverty. Despite Job Corps's noble mission, some of these centers are plagued by misuse of federal funds and criminal behavior. Private contractors run the sites under the watch of the Labor Department. We reached labor secretary, Thomas Perez, on a day he was visiting a Job Corps center in Memphis.
Mr. Secretary, good morning.
LABOR SECRETARY THOMAS PEREZ: Good morning - pleasure to be with you.
MCEVERS: Tell us how Job Corps works. I mean, who does it serve?
PEREZ: Job Corps serves young people ages 16 to 24 for whom education system just hasn't worked. They've dropped out. Many are homeless. They've aged out of foster care. They may have been in the criminal justice system. But they have remarkable talent. So there are 125 Job Corps centers across the country, and people actually live there. This is not a program you go to and then go back home at night. The program provides very rigorous job-related career training. They're learning a skill, and we're giving them the critical life skills because, for so many people in this program, their lives have been very challenging.
MCEVERS: So what's one example of a skill set you would teach a kid in an are that's - where that skill set is needed?
PEREZ: Well, health care is a good example. In the '60s, the Job Corps offered two health care courses. Today, students train for careers in dozens of different health care occupations. Another example is in the area of culinary studies. In the nation's capital, the Potomac Job Corps Center has trained, literally, hundreds of people who have gone to work in the hospitality industry. And either of those pathways is progress and success.
MCEVERS: You know, the program costs about $45,000 per student, you know, for taxpayers. I want to understand what the success rate is. I mean, how many of these kids are actually getting jobs?
PEREZ: Oh, the job success rate has been very good. More than 80 percent of Job Corps graduates go on to join the workforce, enlist in the military or enroll in higher education. While in the program, on average, students improve two grade levels in reading and writing or math. And I have seen so many people for whom the Job Corps center has been the game-changer.
MCEVERS: There have been some reports of mismanagement at some of the Job Corps centers - you know, drug use in one center. What kind of oversight is there to keep this from happening?
PEREZ: Sure, I mean, over the course of the 50-year history, there has been issues like that and performance issues. And that's why every year, Job Corps centers - they are ranked according to some very rigorous metrics including job placement, completion of various courses - all the metrics that you would want of success. And those who aren't succeeding - we work with them. And we hold them accountable. And, in some cases, we replace the provider because they frankly weren't doing the job. And when we've seen other challenges, we provided students with opportunities to go to a different site because this site wasn't working for them.
MCEVERS: The American economy is different now. It used to be that you could graduate high school or get a GED and then get, you know, a blue-collar job that would support you and a family. That's not the case, increasingly, in this country. How has Job Corps changed to respond to that?
PEREZ: Sure, you know, back in the '60s when the Job Corps first starting, the program's focus was really on finishing a high school diploma or the GED because that was, as you correctly say, enough. But now we know that by 2020, something like two-thirds of all jobs in the economy are going to require a high school diploma and beyond. And that's how the Job Corps has adjusted. So back in the '60s, we trained mechanics. Now we train auto-techs with advanced diagnostic and computer skills so that they can do the auto-tech job of today. And what's probably most important is the alignment between the training programs and the local industry needs. I've spoken to so many employers across this country who rely on the Job Corps for their pipeline. Just a few weeks ago in Alaska, I met someone who's working at the local water utility, and the employer who hired him has a rich history of hiring through the Job Corps. So we're making sure that, just as in our workforce system, everything we do is demand-driven - giving people skills that are relevant to today's economy. That's exactly what we're doing in the Job Corps, as well.
MCEVERS: Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, thank you so much for joining us.
PEREZ: It's been a pleasure to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.