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Funding Battle : Job Corps Sticks to Its Guns

Times Staff Writer

Last summer, Daniel Machuca was a year out of an East Los Angeles high school, but all his diploma had gotten him was a series of dead-end jobs. In Baldwin Park, Caroline Ruiz had her degree, too, but she was stuck cleaning up offices. And in San Francisco, Noemi Pegueros had resigned herself to making an odd dollar carrying people’s groceries and falling in and out of runaway shelters.

Today Machuca is training to be a short-order cook and talking about some day being a chef. Ruiz is studying to be a legal secretary and perhaps--years of night school into the future--a lawyer. And Pegueros is taking business education courses with an eye toward becoming a computer repair technician and saying things like “I feel like a person again.”

These tiny, anonymous dreams of redemption are hewn inside a cluster of aging, ugly buildings in a coarse section of downtown Los Angeles buffeted by parking lots, a taco stand and a garish X-rated movie house.

It’s the federal government’s Job Corps, “one of the best damn secrets in L.A.,” as the center’s new director, David Maranville, likes to put it.

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People tend to confuse the Job Corps with the Peace Corps or with myriad private employment agencies. Or they presume that it died somewhere in the past decade with the rest of those do-gooding social programs of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Job Corps averages about one sentence a year of national news coverage when it usually is lumped among the programs the Reagan Administration wants to slash or abolish in its annual budget.

Unabashed Sense of Mission

Nevertheless, the Job Corps is very much alive and exuding the same unabashed sense of mission as in those heady days of its birth, 1965. It houses 40,000 disadvantaged youths in 107 urban and rural centers across the country, offering remedial courses in basic educational skills and entry-level training in scores of jobs ranging from grocery checker to nurse to offset printer.

The leaders of the program, which enjoyed lush expansion during the Carter Administration, are in the midst of their yearly Reagan-era struggles to fend off deep cuts. Last year, an impressive bipartisan coalition in Congress voted down the Administration’s fiscal 1986 budget proposal to eliminate the Job Corps’ $600-million budget, and funding was not significantly curtailed.

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Reagan’s 1987 budget, now being evaluated by Congress, would cut the program to $398 million from its present $631 million, leaving only inner-city centers open. Job Corps officials believe they can fight off all cuts except an automatic $28-million deletion required by the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction law.

In fighting the budget-cutters, what the Job Corps has going for it that many bigger, better-known social programs don’t have are heroes.

Success Stories

Any corps staffer or graduate can cite scores or hundreds of poor or lower-middle-class teen-agers who were vaguely ambitious enough to want to better themselves but needed a break--the calming influence of a strictly disciplined dorm or a couple months of intensive instruction in reading or math or simply the kind of on-the-job training that they couldn’t afford to obtain from a private trade school.

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Take Melesia Vanegas. In 1980, Vanegas was a 19-year-old unmarried mother with an eighth-grade education living on welfare in Arizona.

“I was bored, I was doing nothing, I didn’t have no experience,” she said. “I had a friend who’d come to L.A. and wrote me about the Job Corps.”

She applied and asked to be placed in the Los Angeles center, tried her hand at clerical training and grew bored but eventually took a fancy to the Corps’ building maintenance training program, which covers fields like plumbing, carpentry, plastering and electricity.

Upon graduation she found a job assembling prefabricated homes, then moved on to the maintenance staff of Angelus Plaza, a large downtown senior citizens housing development. Six months ago she was promoted to lead maintenance mechanic.

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Expensive Investment

“I got an office now,” Vanegas said with obvious pride. “And I give the guys orders. If it hadn’t been for the Job Corps, I’d probably be back home on welfare still. I’m not dumb--I mean, I learned my basics in school--but I didn’t know anything else until I joined Job Corps.”

Los Angeles center Director Maranville, who worked at Job Corps centers in South Carolina, Georgia, Iowa and Massachusetts before coming here last year, says the training is aimed at “people that everybody else seems to have given up on.”

It is an expensive investment, however. At about $15,000 a student, the Job Corps has the highest per-slot cost of the federal government’s $4.8-billion array of job training programs. (Reagan was criticizing the cost of the program as early as 1965--when the program cost about $4,700 per member--noting tartly in his standard political speech that “we can send them to Harvard for $2,700.”)

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The Corps pays for its recruits’ housing, usually in places like converted hotels or old military bases. It provides living expenses of between $10 and $20 a week, a clothing allowance averaging $50 every few months and free meals and transportation. It also provides extensive placement and counseling services.

Strict Regimentation

In return, the recruits, who are between 16 and 22, are housed three to a room in small quarters that routinely are checked to make sure nobody sleeps late in the morning or stays out too late or forgets to clean up. Depending on how quickly they advance through training, they can spend up to two years in the Corps.

“The rules are a little outrageous but it’s not bad if you want to better yourself,” said Keith Beale, who was working at a race track after dropping out of Morningside High School in Inglewood and enrolled three months ago because he “wasn’t too much concentrating on life.”

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It is not unusual for a Corps member disenchanted by the regimentation to leave the program after only a few days. However, for many the restrictions come to be welcomed as a way of escaping or overcoming an oppressive home life.

Noemi Pegueros, for example, did not want to enroll in the Job Corps but she had little choice. She had lived by herself since the age of 12 after running away from a childhood that she said was marred by beatings and an alcoholic mother, and endured years of drugs and run-ins with law enforcement officers.

Last fall, at 19, she was a few days away from being evicted from a cheap motel in San Francisco when a probation officer referred her to Job Corps.

“It has its ups and downs, but for me it’s mostly ups,” Pegueros said. “I’ve been kicked out of a lot of places and I know where I’m coming from. When you get kicked out a lot, you get the ambition.”

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Most Live in Program Housing

Pegueros is one of about 350 men and women who live in Job Corps dorms downtown at 11th and Broadway or in Hollywood. An equal number are Los Angeles residents who choose to live at home while they train. At most centers in the nation, 90% of Corps members live in program facilities.

In arguing for sharply cutting back Job Corps and a number of other federal job training programs, Administration budget officials have argued that the nation’s resurging economy will naturally create more job opportunities.

Job Corps instructors and students condemn that thinking as unrealistic, saying it ignores the fact that millions of young people lack the basic educational skills to advance beyond menial jobs--unable even to read a job notice or prepare a resume or decipher the process of joining a labor union.

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Labor Secretary William Brock, appearing before a Senate subcommittee to defend the proposed cuts, admitted as much.

“You can’t give me enough money to clean up this mess,” Brock said, noting that “700,000 children are dropping out of school each year and another 700,000 are graduating functionally illiterate. . . . There are 23 million people in this country who can’t read a help-wanted sign.”

‘Gives Them Another Chance’

Even those youths who finished high school before joining Job Corps “would not make it” if the alternative was going to a community college to learn a trade, said Jack Boyd, field education representative for the Brotherhood of Railroad and Airline Clerks, a union which has a longstanding contract with the Job Corps to train and place transportation industry clerks. “Their basic skills are very low. I see a lot of students that for one reason or another screwed up in high school,” Boyd said. “This gives them another chance.”

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That’s what Daniel Machuca is hoping for.

After graduating from Roosevelt High, Machuca “worked part time at this or that” and checked out various training programs in search of a trade before landing in Job Corps.

“There’s a lot of menial jobs if you want a minimum-wage job the rest of your life, but after a couple of years you lose your self-respect, you know this is what you’re gonna do for the rest of your life,” he said.

Hands-On Training

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Machuca is specializing in the Corps’ restaurant training program. (“I figured I’m gonna be doing some job for 20, 30 years, so I better do something I like. I like food.”) Inside what used to be Casey’s Deli at 11th and Broadway, instructor Marie Van Aucken teaches the elements of making sandwiches, salad dresssings, waiting on tables, washing dishes and making “specials” like chicken cacciatore.

“I’m trying to show them how it would be to work at Norm’s or Denny’s,” said Van Aucken, whose parents once ran two downtown restaurants. “I don’t want their first job to be at a McDonald’s, unless they’re going to go into the management program.”

The hallmark of the training is an obsession with the “real world.” Most students punch a time clock upon entering and leaving classes and taking breaks. Business students spend six months in a make-believe sales company tediously writing bills, checks, sales orders, bank deposits and the rest of the flood of paper work they will encounter when they become an accounting clerk. Building maintenance students are assigned to repair the Los Angeles center’s downtown and satellite facilities. The restaurants class’ 15 students open their coffee shop for business Thursdays and Fridays.

Van Aucken says “at least 75%" of her students find jobs in the food service industry, but the Job Corps has plenty of harder numbers--volumes of them, recorded at each center in a meticulous and politically successful effort to justify the high per-student cost of the program.

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Success in Los Angeles

For example, according to regional Job Corps officials in San Francisco, 80% of the students who entered the Los Angeles center between July, 1985, and February stayed at least 90 days, the sixth best rate of the 107 centers. Of those who stayed that long, 83% stayed at least half a year, 13th best in the nation. And of those who finished training, 93.6% were placed in jobs, 26th best.

Job Corps officials cite studies that compare the cost of the program to the extra payroll taxes, lower welfare costs and reduced incarceration expenses that come from training the disadvantaged. The most recent study, by a University of Utah management science professor, estimated that the program saves taxpayers about $100 million a year and said the program more than pays for itself as graduates remain productive citizens.

A 1980 study by a New Jersey institute compared Job Corps graduates one to two years after completing the program with their peers who did not have such training and found that Job Corps graduates were employed 55% of the time, compared with 47% for the control group. Other graduates were more likely to be in the military or in college.

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Sandra Kinji, the Los Angeles center’s supervisor of placement and recruitment, argues that the savings transcend raw numbers.

“You don’t just change a kid, you change an entire generation, because that kid is going to change his whole family--he’s going to be that person who makes it in his family, and it will touch them and the children he brings up,” she said.


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