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Sounding the Alarm on Job Corps' Woes

For Anand Vimalassery, watching Job Corps’ finances spiral out of control has been more than frustrating. After all, he spent the better part of a year trying to warn the Labor Department that the program — which offers students ages 16-24 free education or training to learn a career, earn a high school diploma or equivalency degree, and find and keep a good job — was headed for a serious funding shortfall.

Vimalassery is responsible for policy development and outreach to the Labor Department and administration at the National Job Corps Association, which represents the contractors that operate Job Corps centers as well as federal agencies, unions and community colleges that partner with job centers.

Last July, he helped prepare recommendations on how Jobs Corps could avert another funding crisis after racking up a $39 million deficit in 2011.

“At that time we had said, ‘OK, we had this crisis, and if we had it last year, we’re going to have it again this year because we have even less funding,’” Vimalassery explained. “Rather than wait to the last minute, we tried to work with [the department] and give them ideas.

“We had told the assistant secretary and Congress that we expected the program to face a shortfall,” Vimalassery continued. “At that time, we organized a working group to come up with cost-saving recommendations. We gave it to the Labor Department and assistant secretary. But as far as we know, they weren’t ever really considered or responded to. It fell on deaf ears.”

The major recommendation, at least to recoup enough savings to avert an enrollment freeze: Tell each Job Corps center operator how much it needs to reduce its budget by and demand that it be done. That tactic has recently been used by the U.S. Forest Service to stay on stable fiscal footing.

“It should have been an easy fix,” Vimalassery said. “It should have been dealt with. It could have easily been solved.”

But it wasn’t until March, after a Senate hearing where members asked department officials about this very strategy, that they implemented it.

Though the enrollment freeze has since been lifted and Job Corps will survive the rest of this month before beginning to use its new fiscal-year appropriations, Vimalassery, like several members of Congress, isn’t convinced that the department will be free of its fiscal-management problems later this year.

“I wouldn’t necessarily look at it as though everything is completely solved,” he said, noting that the program opened three new centers and is taking on additional staff to sort out the budget issues. “We’re going to have a challenge next year. And we have sequestration to deal with.”

On the bright side, Vimalassery said that the Labor Department, in just the past few weeks, has been much more open and willing to meet with the association and other contractors to discuss a variety of cost-containment ideas with the ultimate goal of preventing any job centers from having to turn away students.

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