The Labor Department will update its most expensive job training program in the new year.

The agency is looking to inject changes in the 55-year-old Job Corps program by working with several state governors to implement a new pilot curriculum for students, a senior department official told Bloomberg Law. The agency will also establish new measures to determine the success of centers involved in the $1.7 billion vocational training program.

The live-in program, which exists nationwide at more than 120 locations, helps young workers between the ages of 16 and 24. While it’s the largest job program of the DOL’s Employment and Training Administration, its complicated structure has allowed issues of safety, violence, and drug use to thrive. That has put the program in the media spotlight over the years, and has generated complaints from lawmakers and probes by the DOL’s Office of the Inspector General.

Improving safety and security remains the highest priority for the agency, a DOL spokeswoman said. The changes it’s pursuing, however, don’t appear to directly address safety issues.

There had been several attempts over the years to innovate the program, similarly to what the DOL appears to be doing now, said Eric Seleznow, deputy assistant secretary for ETA under the Obama administration. Seleznow is now the director of Jobs for the Future’s Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning.

“It’s a complicated program. It requires a lot of people to be on the same page about it, including the department and the operators of the Job Corps program,” he said.

Metrics Getting Another Look

All Job Corps projects at the local level are similar and haven’t been changed for decades, so the agency decided “it’s time to think outside the box” to overhaul the offerings, this agency official said.

“Demonstration programs will be pursued for a reasonable time to gather metrics to assess performance,” the DOL spokeswoman said, supporting that official’s comments. The agency wouldn’t elaborate on what those programs could look like or which states have been involved in the discussions.

However, a New York Times report from August indicated that the DOL was reaching out to several states to gauge interest in converting centers into pre-apprenticeship programs for youth of high school age.

Previously, Job Corps focused on internal metrics, such as high school diploma or equivalency achievement and certificate program achievements, to determine a center’s success, but that didn’t always result in jobs for students. The emphasis will now be placed on “what’s important: getting a job and keeping a job,” a DOL spokeswoman said.

The news that the DOL will change Job Corps’ metrics comes months after the DOL’s OIG published a report indicating that contractors in 94 percent of job placements reviewed by the DOL watchdog agency couldn’t demonstrate they had helped participants find jobs. That report was based on a 2010-2012 time frame.

Thoughts on How to Change Corps

The program has graduated millions of low-income students since it started in 1964. Job Corps relies on contractors to run the program at the local level, while the DOL finances the operation. The agency budget for fiscal year 2019 has Job Corps receiving $1.7 billion despite President Donald Trump’s attempts to slash the funding.

There are many modern training strategies in workforce development education that can be brought to Job Corps with this new pilot program, Seleznow said.

Job Corps is governed by the 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. To make major changes, Secretary Alexander Acosta would have to consult Congress.

The act states, however, that “the Secretary may carry out experimental, research, or demonstration projects relating to carrying out the Job Corps program,” which could allow the department to adopt pilot programs.

At the same time, addressing some safety issues is equally important. There’s a need to have ample screening and monitoring done in the residential training offices, while maintaining an environment that’s welcoming to students, Seleznow said.

In the past decade, the OIG has published several reports on the safety issues plaguing Job Corps.

In 2015, a violent murder of a young student at a Homestead, Fla., location closed the center. In a subsequent report, the OIG noted that the ETA and Job Corps made changes to address violent crime and oversight of student disciplinary policies but that more still needed to be done.