MANCHESTER — Half a century after President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the Job Corps as part of the Equal Opportunity Act, young men and women in New Hampshire will finally have their chance to participate in the federally funded career-building program.
U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez joined the state's top elected officials and Manchester's mayor in ground-breaking ceremonies on Tuesday, celebrating the successful conclusion of a decade-long effort to build a Job Corps training campus in the Granite State, one of only two states that has never had one.
The controversies that dogged the effort were set aside in a nonpartisan celebration at the nine-acre site off Dunbarton Road, where a nine-building campus is scheduled for completion by January 2015. It's expected to accommodate 320 students per year, with 288 in dormitories and the balance as commuters.
Low-income students will apply to be accepted into programs that offer a high school diploma or equivalent to dropouts, and vocational training to qualified high school graduates, ages 16 to 24.
In his first trip outside Washington since being confirmed on July 18, Perez took the podium under a blazing summer sun to congratulate all those involved in bringing the center to New Hampshire, including Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, who began the effort in 1998 when she was governor, and local developer Dick Anagnost, who served as chairman of the New Hampshire Job Corps Task Force since being appointed by then-Gov. Craig Benson in 2002.
Perez called the Job Corps "one of the most enduring and effective workforce development and anti-poverty programs in the history of workforce development efforts," and alluded to the fact that the program was launched 49 years ago to the day.
"So on the 49th birthday of the Job Corps, we launch a Job Corps in the 49th state," he said. "We have some nice symmetry here as we move forward." Wyoming is now the only state without a Job Corps center. There are about 120 across the country, with multiple sites in larger states.
A top Labor Department official resigned in January when the Job Corps was forced to freeze new enrollments in light of a $60 million deficit. The freeze was lifted in April, but future enrollment is likely to be reduced by 20 percent nationwide, according to the Washington Post.
Job Corps produces about 60,000 graduates a year, with an annual budget of $1.6 billion — a high cost per student, according to critics, who say the program exaggerates its job placement rates.
In an interview after the groundbreaking, Perez said the country gets a good return on the program because young men and women who might otherwise end up unemployed become taxpaying citizens for life. "If you look at the return on investment over the last 49 years of the Job Corps, it's been quite impressive," he said.
Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte opposed a plan, supported by Shaheen, to require a "project labor agreement" that would have given organized labor in the state more control over wage rates and benefits during the construction phase. The Department of Labor agreed in October to put the contract out to bid without the agreement.
That history was also put aside on Tuesday as Ayotte congratulated Shaheen for her efforts, while stressing the need to "apply New Hampshire principles" to the project.
The Department of Labor in April selected Bedford-based Eckman Construction as general contractor for the $35-million complex, where site preparation work is already underway. Eckman CEO Mark Walsh said 10 weeks of ledge excavation have gone well and one foundation is already poured.
He said all foundations and utilities should be in place by January 2014, with work on structures to continue throughout next year.
The Manchester site could be a groundbreaker in two ways, Anagnost said. It will be the first to host commuters, thanks to an agreement with the Manchester Transit System to extend the city bus line to the Dunbarton Road location. It could also become the first to be administered by a local school system if the Manchester School District is successful in its application to the Department of Labor's Employment Training Administration.
"The typical student enters Job Corps without any work experience and limited academic credentials," Shaheen said. "But after one year of training, 72 percent of the young people participating have a job or are enrolled in additional schooling, so this has been a very successful model."
Gov. Maggie Hassan, Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas and First District Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter joined Ayotte, Shaheen and Perez in making brief remarks before they all donned their ceremonial hard hats and lined up for photographers with shiny new shovels in hand.