BANGOR, Maine — Maine’s congressional delegation and the spokeswoman for the governor criticized the U.S. Department of Labor’s recent decision to freeze enrollment at all 125 Job Corps centers across the country, including two in Maine.
Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King joined Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree in drafting a letter to the U.S. Department of Labor’s acting secretary, Seth Harris, expressing “deep concerns” that the move might cripple the program in the long term.
The Department of Labor officially announced the enrollment shutdown on Jan. 28. The freeze is expected to last until at least June 30.
“The department’s decision to suspend all new student enrollments to Job Corps centers will leave thousands of youth without access to the largest residential youth education and training program for disadvantaged youth age 16 to 24,” the letter states.
Department of Labor spokesman Edmund Fitzgerald said Jan. 30 that the Job Corps, which is looking at a $1.5 billion budget for 2013, would face a $61.5 million shortfall if it didn’t halt enrollment.
Job Corps provides free job training in manufacturing, construction and other career paths. Training can take from eight months to two years, according the the Job Corps website.
In the letter, the delegation stated that it was “troubled” to learn of a $39 million shortfall in program year 2011. That shortfall was addressed through “difficult cost-saving measures,” as well as the transfer of funds from other Job Corps discretionary accounts. The politicians said they were “disturbed” to learn that the problem has persisted and grown since 2011.
“It is disconcerting the department has failed to identify the specific causes of the budget shortfall, has yet to provide a detailed justification to Congress of the need to suspend enrollment, and has not taken action to permanently stabilize the financial condition of the program,” the politicians wrote. “All other cost-saving measures ought to be exhausted before implementing measures adversely affecting Job Corps students or youth seeking enrollment in the program.”
The letter asks Harris to provide an analysis of the causes of the 2011 shortfall and the changes implemented because of it, as well as the same information for program year 2012; a “full justification” of the need to suspend enrollments; and a full description of every other cost-savings alternative considered by the department.
Maine Gov. Paul LePage has taken an interest in the Job Corps in the past, visiting Penobscot Job Corps on several occasions and trumpeting the importance of education and job training. The governor’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said Friday that the news was troubling and also criticized the fact that the Department of Labor “failed to take action to permanently stabilize the financial condition of the program when the financial problems first started.”
“The governor is encouraged by the students that have utilized the education they receive at Job Corps to make a better future, so it’s unfortunate that the program may be negatively affected by mismanagement from the federal government,” Bennett said.
Representatives of the Penobscot and Loring Job Corps centers, located in Bangor and Limestone, respectively, have declined to comment, referring all questions to the U.S. Department of Labor.
“This decision was not made lightly, and comes after considering and implementing alternatives to reduce program costs and stay within the budget for this important program,” Fitzgerald said. “We are not abandoning Job Corps centers.”
Collins’ spokesman Kevin Kelley said he doesn’t expect a response to the letter until late in the week of Feb. 4, at the earliest.
Meanwhile, students who were hoping to get into the program in January will have to wait for at least five months for their chance to join.
Rebecca Gray of Southwest Harbor said Friday that her 21-year-old son, Glen, was one of those Job Corps hopefuls. He had been through the admissions process and was poised to start at Penobscot Job Corps in late January or early February, but when Rebecca Gray called the admissions counselor on Jan. 25, she was told they wouldn’t be admitting anyone, Gray said.
Gray’s son had planned to study culinary arts, facilities management, and welding at the Job Corps before deciding which career path to choose, she said.
Instead, Gray said her son remains unemployed and is looking for a place to stay while he waits for another opportunity to join Job Corps if and when the enrollment freeze is lifted.
Gray, who works in social services, said “I know kids who have gone there and it’s made a tremendous difference in their lives.”
She said she wants that for her son.
“The rug was pulled out from under him and leaves him betwixt and between,” Gray said.