By Portia Wu
July 29, 2014, Washington, DC, — Fifty years ago this summer, President Lyndon B. Johnson launched a series of programs aimed at restoring our nation’s fundamental promise of equality and opportunity. The July 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the Economic Opportunity Act, signed on Aug. 20 of that year, were twin pillars of the “War on Poverty” – both committed to extending the American Dream to those who had been unjustly excluded.
One of the key elements of the latter bill was the establishment of Job Corps, a residential education and training program for disadvantaged young people ages 16-24. Job Corps is based on a value as American as they come, and it remains the animating principle of our opportunity agenda today: no matter where you started out in life or what ZIP code you live in, you should have the chance to make it.
According to Job Corps records, 17-year-old Charles Logan of Baltimore was the first person to register for training. The first Job Corps center was located at Catoctin Mountain, Maryland, where the students – all men – worked in maintenance and construction of park amenities, like trail signs, for the U.S. Forest Service. Johnson appointed Sargent Shriver, who had set up the Peace Corps for President Kennedy, as the first director of the Office of Economic Opportunity and the architect of Job Corps. He proved to be the deft and politically astute leader the program needed to survive, especially in response to local opposition to new Job Corps centers and the country’s preoccupation with the Vietnam War.
Nearly 2.7 million students have benefited from Shriver’s persistence and sound management. At 125 centers in 48 states, students today learn the skills necessary to succeed in good jobs with high-growth potential in a dynamic economy. Graduates learn career skills in more than 100 areas – from automotive maintenance to information technology, from health care to hospitality, from construction to IT. Some have become doctors, judges and entertainment executives.
Responsiveness to economic change has been essential to Job Corps’ continued success. Just last week President Obama signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act into law – rejuvenating our investment in workforce training and aligning it with the needs of employers.
Also, Vice President Biden released a report outlining recommendations for job-driven training models based on evidence of what works. That report includes a sound blueprint for maintaining Job Corps as a cutting-edge program in the years to come.
While we must remain vigilant about maintaining high standards of excellence and accountability at Job Corps, we must not lose faith in the idea that lifting up those who have been given so little makes our nation stronger. Job Corps represents the best of who we are. There is no other program like it.
Portia Wu is the assistant secretary of labor for employment and training.