For Lakayla Flowers and Tanyka Rodriguez, both 23 and from the Portland area, entry into Job Corps meant the difference between housing and an education on one side and various stages of homelessness on the other.

The two had applied to Job Corps, waited for months, been promised an enrollment date and then given the same crushing news early this year:?The U.S. Department of Labor froze enrollment in the Job Corps program nationwide after an approximately $61.5 million budget shortage.

The enrollment freeze, which started nationwide Jan. 28, was lifted by the Labor Department in late April.

Centers across the country agreed to contracts that lowered the number of students they serve and people they employ. Tongue Point Job Corps Center’s maximum enrollment, 525 before the freeze, was cut by more than 20 percent to 413.

The nation’s largest job-training program was started in 1964 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson administration’s War on Poverty, with a stated goal to help “young people ages 16 through 24 improve the quality of their lives through vocational and academic training.”

The National Job Corps Association, a group of private entities that operate centers for the Labor Department, estimated that the freeze on enrollment blocked more than 10,000 students nationwide and caused 700 people to lose their jobs at training centers.

Tongue Point, which is fully operated by the Utah-based Management and Training Corporation, reinstated its first student May 14, a male who had to take medical leave and was not allowed back in during the freeze. Its admissions counselors were cleared to resume recruiting students in early April, and the first batch of new arrivals started May 28.

Students said they are grateful that the educational opportunities are opening up.

“I enjoy having my own room and my own bed,” said Rodriguez, who spent a year waiting for entry into Job Corps, which finally came July 9. She’s going through career preparation courses before studying welding as her primary trade, along with carpentry, in hopes of becoming a millwright. “It's a lot better than sleeping on other people's couches. I can't wait to get in my trade.”

“I was living on the streets at the time,” said Flowers, who had been told of the freeze five days before her original Feb. 9 start date. “Each time I would go to a shelter, it would be full.

“I was living and sleeping outside a lot of the time.”

Flowers, like Rodriguez, started July 9, and her primary trade will be electrical. Along with her main trade, she will study carpentry and facilities maintenance and hopes to go continue onto an advanced Job Corps training program in New York for solar energy.

Flowers and Rodriguez are two of the approximately 382 students currently at Tongue Point, which before the freeze averaged about 525, bottomed out at 357 June 3 and ultimately had its maximum enrollment cut by more than 20 percent after the three-month freeze ended and the effects of sequestration sank in.

Flying blind

“They did it in stages without really informing us where they were going,” said Kim Shillinger, director of Tongue Point Job Corps Center, about the directives he said were being handed down by the Labor Department without any local input. “It’s kind of like they were cutting pieces at a time without telling us.

“It was hard to plan without knowing what they were going to do next.”

Information on the budget shortfall, and thus the freeze, remained sparse throughout the ordeal.

Jane Oates, the former assistant secretary of Labor’s Employment and Training division, which has administered Job Corps for the Labor Department since 2010, testified in February that the $60 million budget shortfall was related to cost overruns and mismanagement. She resigned by the end of May.

Under management by the Employment and Training division, the program incurred a $30 million deficit during its following budget cycle and a $60 million shortfall this year.

Labor Department representatives announced after the freeze was lifted that they had eliminated projected shortfalls in the current budget cycle, and that the ending of the freeze was related to the renegotiation of contracts with the center operators.

When the effects of sequestration hit, said Shillinger, that was when the Labor Department finally came out and told many centers to cut enrollment by 21 to 22 percent. The reduction was a requirement, said Montero, of the freeze being lifted.

Although Tongue Point managed all but one of its staff reductions related to its 21-percent enrollment decrease through attrition, it now operates with the equivalent of 15 fewer employees and has shut an entire residence hall down.

Tita Montero, the center’s business and community liaison, said that the center’s estimated annual economic impact on the North Coast has been reduced from $11 million before the freeze to $8.5 million as a result of student and employee reductions.

A dress rehearsal

for a career

Before studying specific trades, students entering Tongue Point first go through career preparation, which teaches them to be responsible, marketable employees. They learn from teachers like Mary Huber and her team of three teachers, who were all furloughed from early March until May 21.

“Since we’re here for the first students, consequently we didn’t really have a reason to be,” said Huber, who while looking for work as part of unemployment was always confident she’d be brought back.

Across Oregon and Washington, said Montero, 22 admissions counselors, employed by Dynamic Educational Systems Inc., were laid off as part of the freeze. They help recruit students and check in regularly with them while they’re applying, another safety net lost during the freeze.

Montero said the enrollment level is a moving target, with students entering and leaving weekly, and getting to maximum enrollment will be a slow process. The center, which runs 69 percent male, must fill slots based on the openings in certain trades and student demographics.

“We have x number of rooms. Some of them have to be male rooms. Some of them have to be female,” she said.

Job Corps has always had trouble attracting female students, said Montero, and 39 percent of Tongue Point’s students are female.

For their part, Flowers and Rodriguez are feeling confident about what the future holds.

“Before I came here, I was talking to Women in Trades,” said Flowers about the Portland chapter of a career fair that promotes female employment in male-dominated industries. “They were like, ‘we already have a place for you.’

Flowers guesses that if she works hard, she can finish her trade in 10 to 12 months before going for more advanced training in New York. Rodriguez places her completion date between eight and 15 months.

“I feel really confident about it, because a lot of the instructors ... they really promote women in the trades. There’s a lot of jobs out there for women in the trades.”

Rodriguez switched to the trades from cosmetology school. “I like to work with my hands

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