Job Corps, established 50 years ago Aug. 12, has been many things to many people, training hundreds of thousands of youths for free and preparing them to be responsible, successful adults.
Tongue Point Job Corps Center, a former U.S. Navy base just east of Astoria that accepted its first students Feb. 2, 1965, and has since trained more than 40,000, celebrated its 50th anniversary early by opening up to those former students.
When the center first opened, it was operated by the University of Oregon and was men-only for 16- to 21-year olds until 1968. It flipped that year, becoming women-only until 1972.
Rosario Fernandez, who traveled to Tongue Point form the Bay Area, was one of the first female crop of graduates in 1970, after having moved to San Francisco from Bolivia several years earlier.
“A postcard was sent from Job Corps: ‘If you’re 16 to 21, come talk to us,’” said Fernandez, who moved to be a babysitter for her sister and brother-in-law, a representative of the Bolivian consulate in San Francisco. But Fernandez found that without the bilingual educational opportunities in the late 1960s, she didn’t fit in school and had trouble finding work. “I guess the postcard was my angel.”
While the University of Oregon provided the equivalent of a high school education with electives, the Philco Corporation, a subsidiary of the Ford Motor Company, was in charge of vocational programs, including trades, appliance repair and electronics. The program was overseen by the Office of Economic Development, which administered many programs such as Job Corps in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society legislative agenda.
At 16 years old, Fernandez had her sister sign permission for her to attend in 1968.
“My mission was to learn English, and my dream was to be a bilingual secretary,” said Fernandez. Meanwhile, she also learned how to drive and even became 1970’s Miss Tongue Point, the center’s entry in the Astoria Regatta.
With the money Tongue Point saved for Fernandez each month she was in the program, she bought a Volkswagen bug and moved back to San Francisco, where Job Corps helped place her with Wells Fargo and helped her find a room at the YMCA. Fernandez retired recently from San Mateo (Calif.) County’s Planning Department and has returned to Tongue Point as a motivational speaker.
While Tongue Point provided a professional start for students such as Fernandez, it also provided the starting point for many families, including the Yockmans, who traveled from Wilsonville with their two children for the anniversary.
“My roommate was in love with a girl here,” said Christopher Yockman, who traveled to Tongue Point in the late 1990s with a large contingent of Hawaiians in Astoria to learn seamanship on the retired freighter Betsy Ross.
At the center, Yockman helped write a letter to his roommate’s love interest, who ironically became his wife Melissa Yockman. The two first met while studying for their General Education Development (GED) exam at Clatsop Community College. Melissa graduated in 2002 with dental assisting credentials, and Christopher left in 2003, graduating from the seamanship program.
Fernandez remembers, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, rioting by students at Tongue Point that shut down the center for a week. Before 1974, newspaper articles estimated its demographics at 70 percent African-American, owing to its strategy of pulling students from the East and Southeast.
By 1972, Job Corps focused more on recruiting students from the same regions as its centers, flipping the demographics of Tongue Point to 70 percent Caucasian.
Tongue Point has often been a safe haven for international students escaping war and political strife as well. Jim Shaw, an accounting instructor from the late 1980s and early 1990s, remembers trying to teach groups of Romanians who had fled the Soviet Union and had been sponsored by a local businessman to study at Tongue Point.
“A lot of times they wouldn’t know what a plus or minus sign was,” said his wife Barbara, who also remembers Eritreans and Ethiopians attending the center together after their countries had fought wars with each other.
It’s estimated that throughout its history, Tongue Point, now operated by private firm Management and Training Corporation for at least the past 20 years, has employed more than 1,500 local residents such as Shaw at the center.
It’s faced the ebb and flow of federal funding, its capacity of more than 500 students sometimes being cut in half. At its most recent worst, the center shrank from its peak enrollment of 525 to 357 during an enrollment freeze between January and April 2013. It’s now building back up to 473 students, buffeted by its seamanship program, Job Corps’ only such program in the country.
Starting with about three and offering more than 20 throughout the years, Tongue Point now boasts 16 trade programs for students, who it helps place in jobs after graduation. Its graduates averaged a wage of $11.23 per hour after graduation, as of 2013. Nearly 75 percent found full-time job placements after graduation, and more than 72 percent were still employed in their placement a year after graduation.
Its seamanship program is doubling, adding an entire second class of 60 students to the center’s training vessel the Ironwood. Students in the program can expect more than 90 percent job placement, and the program is the second-most lucrative in all of Job Corps’ more than 1,200 trades.