Latest Job Corps operator seeks to improve Northlands
VERGENNES — With a new center director on board, and updated agreement with Vergennes police signed and an active Community Relations Council, the company that took over Northlands Job Corps in December 2013 believes the pieces are in place for the federal job training center in Vergennes to begin making substantial progress.
CHP International center operations director Lauren Morales — who served as Northlands interim center director for about four months until new center director George Sabol came aboard in late January — said she believes Northlands is poised to succeed after taking over following Alutiiq LLC’s troubled tenure.
Morales acknowledged that Northlands still lags in the U.S. Department of Labor’s rankings of the 125 Job Corps centers, all of which are run by private corporations under contract with the DOL.
But she expects that ranking to change for a center that is CHP’s first as primary operator — CHP has worked with many other center operators in areas that include recruitment and job placement.
“Ask us this question at the end of year two,” Morales said. “Year one has been focused on identifying the problems that existed due to the other contract, identifying corrective actions that needed to occur in order to resolve them, and putting ourselves in good position for the start of the next program year, which will start on July 1, to perform well.”
Part of Morales’ optimism comes from the hire of Sabol. Sabol’s 11 years in Job Corps includes, he said, a stint in Oneonta, N.Y., as deputy director during which that center’s rankings climbed from 124 out of 125 to “mid-pack.”
Morales said she had been willing to stay on for months as interim director until CHP found the right person.
“We worked long and hard on finding somebody we believe will be a good center director, and a positive influence on the direction of the center and the relationship with the community,” Morales said.
Sabol said if CHP focuses on Northlands’ mission of providing vocational, academic and life-skill training to economically disadvantaged youths, the rankings — which he said are slowly improving — will fall into place.
“The goal is throw all the statistics aside, and it will work out anyway. If you’re doing the right things, giving the students the skills to go out there and get a job, that’s what it’s all about,” Sabol said.
Even when behavioral issues — including allegations by former staff and students of regular beatings in at least one dormitory — and strained community relations derailed Alutiiq’s tenure, most sources continued to praise the education component of the Northlands program.
But that’s not enough, Sabol said.
“There’s the academics, the career training side of it, and there are the life skills,” he said. “If you talk to 90 percent of employers, they’re going to say, I can teach you how to weld. But I can’t teach him how to show up to work on time. I can’t teach him how to get along with his employers. I can’t teach him how to take that jewelry off that’s hanging, it’s in the way, it’s a safety hazard.”
And residential life is a major part of promoting those life skills, Sabol said, and has been a focus of his first two months.
“It’s very difficult for a Job Corps student. They’re giving up a lot of privileges that a lot of people don’t give up. They’re living with other people 24/7,” he said, adding, “We feel the dormitories are more livable now than they’ve ever been … We hold students accountable.”
Shortly after Morales took over as interim director in late September, Northlands signed a new agreement with Vergennes police spelling out when center personnel should call police during disciplinary and possible criminal problems.
Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel said not all has been perfect, but that he is “always hopeful” that a solid working relationship can be developed. He said he understands “there are going to be challenges because those kids are coming from all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds.”
Merkel said he is happy with the updated protocols in the latest agreement, but also remembers years of at-times frustrating relations.
“I am cautiously optimistic that it is going to work out,” the chief said. “But because of the way it’s been up to this point, what’s the Show Me State? Missouri?”
Morales pledged to work out any kinks, noting that Northlands and city police have common goals, but sometimes conflicting solutions.
“If a student is (showing) a behavior and I have to worry about the safety of any student or staff on the center, I want them out of here as quickly as possible,” she said. “I can’t get them out of here if there is still pending (court) status all over the place. So the chief and I have had to work out ways to work that so we’re working together to make sure students who should not be here are not here.”
Morales and Sabol emphasized their commitment to the Vergennes area and the importance of Northlands to the local — and potentially the state’s — economy.
Figures provided by Morales show annual Northlands expenditures of about $1 million, almost 80 percent of which is spent locally. Northlands is also one of Vergennes’ largest employers, with a current workforce of about 110, more than 70 percent of whom are Vermonters.
In CHP’s first seven months, the percentage of Vermont students in the program — up to 220 live on the campus at any given time — increased from about 14 to around 22 percent.
Sabol believes even out-of-state students could ply their trades in Vermont — graduates earn above minimum wage, and Northlands graduates exceed DOL wage targets — and give a needed boost to numbers of the state’s young, trained workforce.
“This is Vermont’s Job Corps. We’re putting the money back into Vermont here,” he said. “This is a great program that taxpayers are funding that is putting money back into the community.”
Student volunteerism in the community has included helping Sweet Charity deliver furniture, helping run the city’s annual Haunted Forest, aiding a dog rescue operation, a welding project for the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes, bike rack repair for the Bixby Library, work at the new Bristol Playground, on-campus blood drives, ongoing work in local communities by the Urban Forestry program, and a half-dozen off-campus projects by Culinary Arts students.
“Every Job Corps that I’ve been at does amazing things in the local community,” Sabol said.
The Northlands Community Relations Council, of which newly elected Alderman Jeff Fritz is the chairman, has also been active, said the Northlands officials.
As well as inviting members of the community to come and visit, Sabol said under Fritz the council has become more of a two-way street.
“We reached out to the community and asked them to help us, to get us some tutors,” Sabol said, adding, “We do projects in the community, but this is to reach out and say you can help us, too. That’s a real relationship.”
Morales said she, Fritz and Northlands business and community liaison Ron Dedrick strolled up and down Main Street to wish business owners happy holidays, while Northlands put up holiday lights and sent out holiday cards for the first time in years.
“There’s a real serious desire to be connected to the community,” Morales said.
Mayor Bill Benton said he is optimistic, but after the Alutiiq experience and a series of short tenures for center directors acknowledged he is also a bit wary.
“George seems like a good person to take that position, and I am extremely hopeful we can have a long and fruitful relationship between the city of Vergennes and Northlands Job Corps,” Benton said. “The thing we have always lacked there is consistency and longevity of directors.”
Sabol said he hopes to stay at least eight years and then retire, while Morales said CHP is determined to make its initial venture into operating a center a long and successful one.
“The company is absolutely committed to the place,” Morales said. “Our experience here is going to positively or negatively impact our ability to grow. But beyond that it’s a source of personal pride to do well and see the students in the program receive the services they’re supposed to be receiving.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]
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