Realizing a Future

Students work on their high school diploma or GED at the Potomac Job Corps Center in Southwest DC. Photo: Christine Rushton

A group of young men crowd around a lab counter in a plumbing training workshop. It’s about an hour before noon on a Friday, and they’re studying the craft with their professional plumbing instructor, Sami Nuriddin, at the Potomac Job Corps Center campus in Southwest DC.

Two in the group volunteer to lead a tour of the back workshop, so they grab their hardhats and unlock the heavy metal door. Johnnie Bentson, a 20-year-old from Norfolk, Va., explains how they use the staged bathroom setup to practice piping and installing real plumbing, using a combination of metal and PVC plastic.

His classmate, Stansberry Beea, a 17-year-old from Baltimore, explains that the classroom-related instruction combined with the hands-on training sets these students at Job Corps apart from others entering the industry. “You can teach anyone how to turn a screwdriver,” Beea said. “But the ‘why’ is what sets you apart.”

Beea and Bentson are two of about 330 young men and women, ages 16-24, who take classes, find jobs, and get training to enter the workforce at the Potomac Job Corps Center (1 DC Village Lane SW). The center sits on a 60-acre campus near the old Blue Plains water treatment center for DC Water and employs about 185-200 staff.

Center Director Mitra Vazeen outlines Job Corps goals as: giving at-risk and low-income students the opportunity to finish school, get certified in a skill or work field, and learn the interpersonal skills to interact professionally with peers and future employers. “It’s making taxpayers out of tax collectors,” Vazeen said. Because for every $1 invested in Job Corps, the center estimates a $1.91 return to the local DC and surrounding economies.

What Is Job Corps?
The US government operates about 127 Job Corps centers around the nation. The program started with President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and is funded by the Department of Labor through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. The federal government actually leases the Potomac Job Corps Center’s land from the DC government and contracts the Exceed Corporation to run it.

Job Corps centers offer a foundation of programs like building-construction technology, carpentry, cement masonry, culinary arts, electrical, hotel and lodging, HVAC maintenance, office administration, pharmacy technician work, plumbing, and security and protective services. Many centers also offer advanced training programs for students with the necessary education and recent clean record.

DC’s location offers advanced training opportunities in transportation, due to the Potomac Job Corps’ partnerships with nearby hubs of CSX Corporation, Amtrak, US Airways, and the US Department of Agriculture. The center also recently inked a deal with Nats Park to let non-transportation-focused students gain work experience at the park. Vazeen said they’re also in talks with Hilton Hotels & Resorts and the new MGM casino to start a workforce development partnership.

Vazeen, who has worked for the Job Corps around the nation for 17 years, hopes to continue growing her center to serve up to 400 students at a time and build out the relationships with the local and national businesses housed in the District-Maryland-Virginia region. Currently, about 36 percent of students come from Maryland, 23 percent from Virginia, 21 percent from DC, and the rest from states around the nation.

She works with high school counselors, visits job fairs, advertises on social media, radio, and online, and goes to immigration centers to recruit. “You can realize your dreams here,” Vazeen said. “It’s the American dream they can realize.”

Life at Potomac Job Corps
When students arrive, Potomac Job Corps hands them a self-care bag and introduces them to their dormitory living space. The majority of students who attend live on the campus, where they eat, participate in student government, play recreational sports, and take classes. They often only leave for work or internship opportunities.

Typically, a student will stay for about a year to complete a GED or high school diploma, enter a skills-based course, and then apply for workforce employment that can likely lead to a full-time job.

But while students come to Job Corps voluntarily, they must commit to following the schedule and rules, said career technical training manager John Cox. “Students sometimes come from environments where they haven’t seen employability skills,” Cox said. So, when a student doesn’t show up for a class or speaks disrespectfully to a peer or staff member, Cox counsels them on the appropriate way to conduct themselves. “Whenever someone corrects you, you apologize and say, How can I do that differently?” he said.

Some students don’t make it work and choose to leave. Others get fired from their internship or job placements. But each of these setbacks is a chance for Job Corps to assess and help the students learn why their behavior blocks their success, Cox said. “This is where the miracles happen,” he said.

Vazeen added: “We try to let the students make all the mistakes here and not on the job.”

From the program, students can pursue a college education with the support of Pell Grants, enter the military, or continue in their field in full-time positions. Job Corps finishers have gone on to positions as physicians, rail conductors, military personnel, pilots, engineers, plumbers, and more.

Providing Structure and a Future
Deanna Lewis-Williams, a 19-year-old from Delaware, came to Job Corps toward the end of 2016. She’s working on getting her high school diploma, studying through the Penn Foster independent education system. “I wanted to better my life,” she said of her decision to come to the center.

Her mom lives in Delaware and has skills as a cook. Lewis-Williams hopes to train herself in hotel business management and certify in culinary arts in order to start her own business with her mom.

Students like Lewis-Williams work with academic advisor Cornell Allen on a daily basis. He sees about 40 faces, both new and familiar, walk through his door to work on their high school education each day. “Every single student has individual needs,” Allen said. “You work on every student, every week.”

Many also come in with little to no experience in a professional working environment, so Allen requires they make eye contact and greet him each morning. It’s practice for their real work behavior.

And if they don’t try to improve themselves, they won’t get what they want out of the program. Potomac Job Corps offers many opportunities, including chances to get a job higher than the minimum wage. The students just have to take them seriously. “The only feet you can trip over are your own,” Allen said.