The Pinellas County Job Corps Center will be unable to accept new students for at least five months following a decision by the U.S. Department of Labor to freeze enrollment at all 125 centers nationwide in a bid to rein in costs.
The centers are often a last chance for at-risk teenagers, providing free education, job training, lodging and help finding work. But without the enrollment freeze, the program was on track to be $61 million over its $1.6 billion budget, labor department officials said.
Halting enrollment may hit the Pinellas center harder than most. The two-year-old center, which is on 22nd Street South in the city's Midtown neighborhood, is still establishing itself, said state Rep. Kathy Castor, who has written to the Department of Labor asking for Pinellas to be exempted. Otherwise, the enrollment freeze may lead to staff layoffs and impacts in the local economy, she warned.
"I'm afraid the freeze in enrollment will be a serious setback," Castor said. "We're just connecting with employers."
Labor Department officials dropped an earlier cost-cutting plan that included closing six centers because of protests, Castor said.
"They originally exempted Pinellas job corps center from any cuts as they understood we are new," she said.
The $42 million center enrolled its first class in November 2010 and serves about 375 young people every year.
Labor Department officials said they are reviewing every cost of the program as they look to lift the hiring freeze by June 30.
"The temporary suspension will give us a pause and ensure current Job Corp students receive the best possible training," said Scott Allen, a spokesman for the Labor Department. "We're still anticipating we will train 54,000 students this year."
Centers originally slated for closure will be required to cut the number of program spaces, Allen said.
Job Corps centers accept students as young as 16. Typically, the program serves homeless and runaway students and those who are failing in traditional school settings and considered at risk of dropping out. Once enrolled, they get job training and the chance to earn a high school diploma.
Exemptions to the enrollment freeze can be made for homeless students, according to the Jobs Corps website.
With Congress grappling with a huge budget deficit, Castor said she fears there may be more cuts to the program.
"Congress is about to have a big battle," Castor said. "If you start cutting now, they will say this is ripe for additional cutbacks."