For the first time in 20 years, a federally funded Job Corps center has opened its doors in California.
The new $21-million facility, on former Navy land in Long Beach, is training nearly 200 at-risk youths who might never have an opportunity for a career. Some have had brushes with the law. Most are high school dropouts. All are from low-income families.
But the center, which is like a small college campus of 10 buildings on 17 acres, is hoping to open a few doors closed to these young people.
Success, however, doesn't happen overnight. Training programs last from four months to two years for participants, who are usually between the ages of 16 and 24.
Students, most of whom live in dormitories during the program, have chosen vocational training classes that range from auto repair and landscaping to telecommunications and glazing. They are urged to get their high school equivalency diplomas. They are given pointers on how to dress, how to be on time, how to work with other people and how to make an impression.
"Inch by inch is a cinch. Yard by yard is hard," said Meneia Perry, director of the center. She was speaking at Tuesday's grand opening ceremony, attended by government officials from Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, and by Long Beach city officials.
The Job Corps was started in 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson as part of the War on Poverty, joining other government programs, such as Head Start and VISTA, aimed at turning people's lives around.
Isidro Solorzano, 22, is hoping the corps will change his life. Unemployed just a few months ago, he was flipping through a weekly publication when he saw an ad for the government program that pays students a minimal amount to learn, gives them free room and board and helps them find jobs.
"When I was looking for a job, I was in the hall of the blind," said Solorzano, a Paramount resident who finished the 11th grade before dropping out and going from one low-paying job to another. "But here they have opened my eyes and helped me go in the right direction."
Solorzano barely resembles the young man who came to the Job Corps more than a month ago, soon after the first students started arriving in February.
The old Solorzano, as shown on his photo identification tag, was a sullen young man who resembled a street hoodlum more than an employable worker.
Now he is wearing a crisp white shirt and black tie as he learns about software programs inside a brand new classroom that has several computers. His hair is slicked back. His mustache is trimmed. He has to punch a time card every morning.
Discipline is a big part of the program. Nearly all of the 192 students at the facility live in dormitories where they must be in bed by 10:30 p.m. and up by 6 a.m. They have to keep their rooms and bathrooms spotless. There are routine inspections.
"It's new, and you have to keep it neat," said Crystal Enriquez, 16, who is one of four young women sharing a dorm room and bathroom.
Enriquez is studying culinary arts after having dropped out of a South-Central high school. Her goal is to open her own catering business or work in a hotel.
More than 1.7 million people have gone through the Job Corps since it started. About 65% of the graduates land jobs in the private sector, government statistics show, and another 10% go on to college or enroll in some kind of educational program.
Even with the economy thriving and unemployment at record low levels throughout the country, government officials believe this program is as essential as ever.
"The unemployment rate for minority youth is incredibly high," said Mary H. Silva, national director of the Job Corps. "The Job Corps is beneficial for those who need a structured environment, academic and vocational training and social skills."
San Diego was the last California city to have a Job Corps center opened by the U.S. Department of Labor. That was in 1979.
During the 1980s, government dollars were scarce for starting new centers, said Raymond J. Uhalde, acting assistant secretary of the Labor Department.
Shortly after President Clinton was elected, more funds were set aside for new campuses, Uhalde said. In 1993, cities were asked to bid for Job Corps sites. Long Beach was a finalist for one of nine new federal job training centers that are opening across the country.