BANGOR, Maine — Sen. Angus King toured the Penobscot Job Corps center on Wednesday as he and other Maine delegates try to pinpoint the reasons behind the Department of Labor budget struggles that led to freezing enrollment at the education centers for cost savings.
“My question is: Out of the whole budget of the Department of Labor, couldn’t they find other places to cut instead of spots for young people who need the training?” King said before taking a tour with Penobscot Job Corps officials, including Director Shawn Murphy, and meeting students.
The Department of Labor announced in late January an enrollment freeze at all 125 job corps centers in the United States, including two in Maine — Penobscot Job Corps in Bangor and Loring Job Corps in Limestone. The freeze is expected to last until at least June 30.
Job Corps provides free job training in manufacturing, construction and other career paths. Training can take from eight months to two years, according to the Job Corps website.
The department has said the freeze is aimed at cutting costs and closing a hefty budget shortfall.
“We estimate that, without action, Job Corps was on a path to exceed its operating budget by approximately $61.5 million,” Department of Labor spokesman Edmund Fitzgerald said early this month. “We are taking these steps, along with short- and long-term administrative changes, to ensure the program continues to serve the nation’s young people.”
The Job Corps’ requested operating budget for 2013 was about $1.5 billion, a decrease of about $24 million from 2012, according to Department of Labor budget information.
King said after his tour that the students were “great kids, great kids all over the country, having a great experience, learning valuable skills.”
The Independent senator said he has met with many business owners in recent weeks who said they needed trained people to fill vacant positions to help businesses grow. Cutting back training programs will hold back economic growth, he argued.
“To be cutting off training programs in the midst of a recession just strikes me as not making much sense,” he said.
King and Maine’s other senator, Susan Collins, along with Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree, and Gov. Paul LePage’s spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett questioned the decision and criticized the department’s failure to find sustainable fiscal solutions after the program faced a $39 million shortfall in program year 2011.
King, Collins, Pingree and Michaud signed a letter sent to the Department of Labor on Jan. 31, calling for a further explanation of the causes behind the shortfall and what actions were being taken to shore up the department’s finances.
The Penobscot Job Corps Academy is currently contracted to serve 346 students on a daily basis, according to the politicians’ letter, and the Loring Job Corps Center is currently contracted to serve 385 students. By the end date of the suspension, each of the Maine sites will have just 80-100 students, the letter states, meaning it could take a long while for the centers to recover to their previous levels. The schools typically enroll students on a rolling basis throughout the year.
Both Maine Job Corps centers have referred comment on the enrollment freeze to representatives of the Department of Labor.
As of Wednesday, King said his office had not received a response from the Department of Labor. He said part of the reason he visited Penobscot Job Corps was to push along the process of finding answers to “how this happened and why this happened.”
King also echoed Collins on Wednesday, stressing the importance of lawmakers coming to a solution that will avoid federal sequestration, which could mean the loss of as many as 5,000 jobs in Maine, he said.
“It’s going to take some people sitting down, getting serious, compromising and reaching a solution so we can move beyond this budget issue and start talking about other important issues,” King said.