A Bold Idea Endures: 50 Years of Job Corps

by Portia Wu on July 29, 2014 · 2 comments

Editor’s note: As we continue to post Job Corps stories in honor of its 50th anniversary, we want to hear from you. Submit your story through our Web form here − or share on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram using the hashtag #JobCorps50.

Timberlake Job Corps historical photo

Archival photo of the Job Corps center in Timberlake, Oregon

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.

Tongue Point Job Corps Center historical photo

Archival photo of the Job Corps center in Tongue Point, Oregon

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 Park, near Thurmont, Maryland, where the students – all men – worked in maintenance and construction of park amenities, like trail signs, for the National Park 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.

Alaska Job Corps center

Secretary Perez with students at the Job Corps center in Palmer, Alaska, July 20, 2014

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

Portia Wu is the assistant secretary of labor for employment and training.

Correction:Thanks to Angela and Scott for pointing out our mistake, which has been corrected. Best of luck in finding early Job Corps students who can talk about their experiences in those years. If you succeed in tracking down these stories, we’d love it if you would share them with us. We’re also looking for men and women who can share their Job Corps experiences, so if anyone has a story tell, please submit it through our Web form here.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Angela Sirna August 1, 2014 at 11:06 am

Catoctin Mountain Park is a National Park Service site. The first center was operated by the NPS, not USFS. In fact, nine Job Corps Conservation Centers operated in eight national parks between 1965 and 1969. All but three closed in 1969. I would love to see alumni from this early period interviewed for oral histories.

2 Scott Bell August 1, 2014 at 12:25 pm

I just wanted to correct something in your article. I am the Chief of Resource Management at Catoctin Mountion Park, a unit of the National Park Service. First the location is Catoctin Mountain Park near Thurmont, Maryland and it was and is a National Park Service unit not a US Forest Service Site. These are inportant corrections.

Also I am in the process of conducting oral histories for the Park and I am looking for anyone that had been assigned to Catoctin Job Corps Center so we can interview them. I am also looking for any of the Vista volunteers or administrative personnel that worked at this location. Any help would be appreciated.

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