- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 28, 2010

With as many as 6 million youth under age 24 having failed to finish high school, the Obama administration wants to see its many “second-chance” work-training programs have a stronger impact on the lives of those youth, officials told a Washington briefing yesterday.

One major change is to have work-training programs stress critical thinking and other skills — like being versatile and nimble — that are essential in today’s workplace, said Cecilia Rouse, a member of the Council of Economic Advisers, to a Brookings Institution panel Tuesday morning.

The days of high-paying, routine-focused jobs like car assembly lines or steel-mill work are “not gone, but they’re going,” Ms. Rouse said. The strongest job growth is happening in professions in which employees have to “think on your feet” and “problem-solve on the job.”

Work-training programs also need firmer exit goals, said Jane Oates, assistant secretary of the Employment and Training Administration at the Department of Labor.

Youth should leave a program with at least some community college credits, for instance, or have a certification as a union-ready pre-apprentice in a trade, or have a clear path into a chosen career field.

Nobody wants a bridge “from Jobs Corp to nowhere,” Ms. Oates said. “We have to have a destination and commitment from both ends.”

However, the problem of remediating disadvantaged and disaffected youth will likely vex the Obama administration as thoroughly as previous ones.

Jobs Corps has been around more than 40 years, and there are more than 100 federal programs — most of them with work and training components — aimed at at-risk and delinquent youth, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Unfortunately, the impact of those work-training programs has only been “mixed,” said Dan Bloom, who oversees projects at the research firm MDRC, at the Brookings event.

Mixed results means that in the short term, a program might help its students get General Equivalency Degrees (GEDs) or achieve some other work-preparation goal, but none was associated with lasting improvements in students’ living standards, he said.

Minority youth are particularly at risk for not finishing school — the dropout rates are 20 percent for Hispanics, 12 percent for blacks and 6 percent for whites, federal data show.

There also are mixed expectations about education in some Hispanic communities, said Juan Rangel, chief executive of United Neighborhood Organization, a major community group in Chicago.

Graduations are celebrated, even lavishly, he said. But “culturally, there’s no shame in work — it is revered” and seen as equal to a high school diploma, he said. Getting a job at 16 is “just as good.”

The U.S. dropout problem is one of the costliest in the nation, said a 2009 study from Northwestern University. Youth without high school diplomas are more likely to be incarcerated, be jobless or have poverty-level earnings (less than $9,000 a year) compared to peers who get college degrees, the study found.

The National Urban League, National Council of La Raza and Youth Build are among the groups calling for a new national re-enrollment program to help dropouts finish high school.