One Jobs Program That Works

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Last week's District of Columbia appropriations bill contained a startling education innovation. It mandates the establishment of a nonprofit corporation governed by the private sector to train and place non-college-bound students in jobs.

If, as President Reagan said, "The best social program devised is a job," then those without jobs or who lack skills that employers want need some help to acquire those skills to connect them to the workplace.

Both the House and the Senate have recently passed bills resulting in a sweeping reform of the federal job training system. Between 80 and 125 programs will be consolidated, depending on the final conference actions, and overall funding cuts will be between 15% and 25%.

If the conservative revolution in Washington is to succeed, no one must be left behind. One low-cost, high-return way to accomplish this is to implement well constructed, economical training in communities where jobs are available. That is the thrust of the two bills in Congress - devolving authority, flexibility, and decisions to the state and local level - and requiring important private-sector involvement in how the funds should be spent.

But the innovation in the District of Columbia may turn out to be the most significant step of all.

It is of particular interest to me, because it is based upon an idea I developed in my prior life as a governor. I used the powers states had then to devise a better way to train young people for work in the real world. Our idea worked then, and it can be a model for what will work now.

"Jobs for Delaware Graduates" (JDG) was created in 1978 as a non-profit partnership to prepare, counsel, and place high school seniors in career jobs. I committed myself to serve as chair, and challenged some of the state's most important business, government, education, community and labor leaders to join me in taking personal responsibility for the program. In turn, we hired a staff that would each be held personally accountable for helping a group of 35 to 40 of our state's most at-risk young people move successfully from school to work.

In the very first year, truly impressive results were achieved in the test high schools. Costs were less than one-third that of similar programs - including the provision of nine months' assistance after students left school to assure successful placement and performance in the private sector.

It was so successful that a number of foundations and government agencies helped test the program in four other states. "Jobs for America's Graduates" (JAG) was then created to help bring Delaware's success story throughout the country.

Today, I am pleased to report that a majority of states now have the JAG program - the largest organization of its kind.

What makes it work? Why do 90% of these at-risk young people graduate from school? Why is it that within nine months 80% are either on the job, in the military, or enrolled in post-secondary education or training? Why is it that JAG shows a 30% improvement in employment? Why is it so cost-effective - at $1,200 per participant, less than one-third the cost of the national average of similar programs?

Because there is private sector oversight and responsibility, real accountability of people to achieve results, and the fact that young people themselves must meet the employability requirements of businesses and take responsibility for themselves and their lives. Governors like Chuck Robb (VA), Kit Bond (MO), and Lamar Alexander (TN) joined me in testing and leading the organization. To date, the JAG organization has helped 175,000 young people.

JAG can demonstrate that young people more than repay the cost of their participation in the program in taxes paid alone. Heaven only knows how much they would have cost if they hadn't completed school, hadn't gotten a job, had gotten on welfare or into trouble with the law - or worse.

Training, counseling, and job placement services can work, if they are run by the private sector, involve communities, and demand results.

That is why Speaker Gingrich is so enthusiastic about the value of training as part of the welfare reform bill the House has passed. That is why so many of us conservatives have found ourselves supporting bottomline, low-cost ways to make sure that we don't leave any of our young people behind - each gets a decent chance to complete school and get a good job upon graduating. And that is why the Speaker and Labor Secretary Robert Reich will keynote the organization's 14th anniversary celebration this month.

Supporting America's young people, conserving the cost of social programs and protecting the base of our taxpayers in the future are good, sound, conservative principles. In "Jobs for America's Graduates," they work in practice.