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At Derby, Job Corps Students Practice Their Trades

Alexander Francis is wearing the bright yellow and gray jacket of a Churchill Downs security guard, helping a lost Derby-goer. Francis is here because of a job training program for low-income youth that he hopes will help him launch a career.

His path to the Derby started in Greeley, Colorado. He lived there with his parents and six younger siblings before he applied for Job Corps, a federal program that offers students a GED, if needed, and job training. After high school graduation, his parents couldn’t pay for college.

After 15 job applications, he still didn’t have a job. His parents said he had to move out. So he found his way to Kentucky, where he’s in training to potentially work at a prison or even be a police officer.

"I don’t know what I would be doing right now” if it weren't for Job Corps, said Francis, 20.

Today, he’s one of 30 Job Corps students being paid to work security at the Derby, and he hopes this will lead to a full-time job after graduation in June.

While unemployment has fallen, those with less education continue to lag behind. Last year, 7.4 percent of people without a high school diploma were unemployed. That compares to 2.7 percent unemployment for college graduates.

“The job market for basic high school graduate jobs, it’s not very good, but from what I’ve heard they’re always looking for police officers, security guards,” Francis said.

Maybe, Francis hopes, he will even save up enough from his Job Corps pay to get a degree in criminal justice and psychology.

Job Corps has been around for more than 50 years, and one of the most successful programs is in Prestonsburg, Kentucky. It ranks No. 9 in success in placing students in jobs out of the 125 centers across the country, according to Job Corps.

Around 500 students graduate from the Prestonsburg center's six-month to year-long program each year, according to Jimmie Wilson, business community liaison with the Carl D. Perkins Job Corps Center. Students must be between 16 and 24, and either have a disability, come from a foster care system or live below the poverty line.

The program first came to Prestonsburg when coal was still the main employer in that region. Those jobs are disappearing. But there’s still a need for security guards.

Beverly Compton is the security instructor with Job Corps. She said actual work experience -- like what Francis and his classmates are getting at Derby this weekend -- make all the difference for students. And this year, several supervisors have made requests for specific students to stay on through Sunday because their work has been strong, Compton said.

“It makes the kids feel good, their confidence level is high,” Compton said.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.

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