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Deal to run Northlands Job Corps is up for bid

VERGENNES — The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has reopened the contract to operate Northlands Job Corps for new bidders. On Thursday, June 9, interested parties will inspect the federal job-training center on Macdonough Drive, and could conduct additional research there and in Vergennes in the days to come.
Current operator CHP International, the Illinois company that has operated the center for the past 30 months under contract with the DOL, will seek to stay on board, according to a letter sent last week to community members and the Independent.
“I am writing to let you know that CHP International, in partnership with Education and Training Resources (ETR), intends to compete vigorously to remain the operator at Northlands,” wrote CHP President Howard Raik.
The DOL oversees the more than 120 Job Corps centers nationwide, almost all operated by private contractors under five-year contracts. The DOL, however, can choose to re-open those contracts after the first two years on their annual anniversary dates, in the case of Northlands on Dec. 1.
Raik’s letter acknowledges that Northlands, which employs more than 100 and can host up to 280 economically disadvantaged youths from New England and New York, has underperformed in some of the methods that the DOL uses to evaluate center performance.
But Raik wrote that CHP has laid the groundwork for improvements in Northlands’ ability to serve those students.
Raik cites “vastly improved relations with the community of Vergennes; steady improvement in the results of the twice-yearly student satisfaction survey; and steady improvement in the caliber of the managers and staff working at the center.”
He wrote, “We believe that these and other improvements create the necessary conditions for improvement in some of the outcome measures on which Northlands lags behind expectations.”
Raik also wrote a change in Northlands leadership would be counterproductive for its students: “We believe, too, that students at Northlands will be much better off if CHP and ETR are permitted to continue the work we have begun than if Northlands is disrupted by another transition so soon after the last one in December 2013.”
Northlands Center Director George Sabol said Northlands has done well in some of the measures the DOL uses to evaluate the centers it oversees: Its students have shown gains in math and literature and done well in Northlands’ high school diploma program, and students who have completed the program have often gone on to work in their chosen trades, worked for competitive pay, and retained their jobs.
“In some of the categories we’re in the top 10 in the country,” he said.
But not enough of the students who have entered the program at Northlands are seeing it through to completion. Sabol said at least in part that statistic is due to his stricter enforcement of discipline.
“Quite frankly, I have had a much higher termination rate than just about any center in our region. I’m well above the national average,” he said. “Basically what I’m saying is I’ve taken the hard line, that if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, I’ll terminate you from the program. Well, that hurts us when I do that. It hurts us statistically when I do that, but it takes time to send that message to the students that we don’t put up with stuff.”
Time is the key message Sabol, who has led Northlands for a little more than a year, would like to send to DOL decision-makers. He, like Raik, points to progress that he believes will pay off in more completions, and said he told DOL officials when he took the job that not all numbers would improve immediately.
“People who have come here have said the center looks better, the culture on the center is better. We do studies every six months, actual student surveys on how safe students feel on center that is done nationally, and each time, the last three surveys, every six months, it’s gone up each time, we have improved,” Sabol said. “That tells me we may not have the numbers where we want yet, but we need more time to do it.”
He also cites improved relations with the host community.
“I feel confident in the relationship with the police department, the city, etc. I know they know we’re turning things around. We’re doing the right things to do, and hopefully the numbers will follow,” Sabol said.
Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel, who has been critical of the level of cooperation his department has received from Northlands officials in the past, agreed discipline and communication have improved under Sabol.
“I think it’s been much better,” Merkel said.
CHP officials do not know where they stand in the application process, or how many other competitors to expect on the 64-acre state-owned campus this week.
According to an email forwarded by DOL spokesperson Ted Fitzgerald, “The procurement for a new, two base years and three options, contract to start December 1, 2016, has been initiated by the Department as a full and open competition.”
Sabol said of DOL officials, “legally, they have to” take CHP’s bid seriously to stay in charge of Northlands, and he hopes to be able to walk to work from his downtown Vergennes rental home for the foreseeable future.
“I’m hoping we keep the contract. I want to stay in Vermont,” Sabol said. “I’m committed to staying here until I retire, and I’m not ready to retire yet.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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