Job Corps center director helps youths find their niche

NEIGHBORS

February 20, 2004|By Lisa Kawata | Lisa Kawata,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

GREG WEBER is a tall man, but even at 6 feet five inches, his height is not as impressive as his heart. As director of Woodland Job Corps Career Development Center in Laurel, Weber is school principal, chief motivator and stand-in father for 300 young adults who need a second chance.

Woodland's students come from homes - and sometimes neighborhoods - that subsist at poverty level or below. Mostly, they come from the inner-city neighborhoods of Baltimore and Washington. About 70 percent of Woodland's students do not have a high school diploma. "I have a big heart for these kids. In many cases, they've been given up on, tossed aside," Weber said. "I don't see that. I see nothing but promise and desire. All these kids want to do well."

This is Weber's fifth year as director of the free residential education and career-training center for young adults, ages 16 to 24. It is one of the 115 Job Corps centers funded by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Weber, 36, lives with his family in North Laurel. His job often requires 11-hour days.

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A large white board covers most of one wall of his office. Charts and reminders fill one side of the board; about a half-dozen quotes fill the other.

"The difference between greatness and mediocrity is how one views a mistake," reads one.

That is Weber's favorite quote.

"My passion is behavior management," he said. "I like to motivate, direct and guide."

Weber oversees Woodland's General Education Diploma (GED) and career-development programs, as well as the center's students and staff members. His philosophy is to do everything possible to make the students employable, including offering handshakes and formal greetings to students - and requiring them to do the same. And he is not above admonishing a young man to tuck in his shirt.

"I try to mirror what they'd experience in the job world," Weber said.

Weber gives students latitude in decorating their rooms.

"If I want to get a sense of how comfortable students are here, I look at how they decorate their rooms," Weber said.

Woodland has an open-entry, open-exit policy, he said. The training is individualized: Students can start the program as soon as openings occur. They graduate when they acquire solid entry-level skills in a chosen trade. The average stay is about nine months.

The first weeks at Woodland are spent exploring careers and doing research, going online to get a sense of the job market and conducting informational interviews with workers in the field to determine which trade to pursue.

Woodland offers training in business, carpentry, computer repair, culinary arts, electrical wiring, facilities maintenance, health occupations, network cable installation and painting. To be accepted to study a trade, a student must be interviewed by an instructor. Each month that a student remains in the program, he or she is paid an allowance, which increases with the length of stay.

The center has a certified driver education program, something that William Everheart, 20, took advantage of when he enrolled. Everheart has been at Woodland for eight months. The Baltimore native saw a television commercial about the Job Corps, and heard about it from a friend. Until coming to Woodland, he worked only occasionally, doing odd jobs, he said.

Everheart will graduate soon from Woodland's network cabling program, with better than entry-level skills, said his teacher, electronic systems technician instructor James George, who created the program three years ago.

"It's [the program] really taken off," due in part to the increased demand for security systems in the region, said George, 58. The program also has applications for cable television, phone lines and data lines.

"This is one of the best choices I've made," Everheart said.

Before leaving Woodland, Everheart will meet with a career-transition specialist. The center provides job assistance for up to a year, and follow-up services for 12 months after employment.

Weber estimates that most residents are about 18. He and his staff deal with daily challenges: anger, conflict with peers, prior substance abuse; for the girls, sometimes a small child at home. The center has a zero-tolerance policy for violent behavior and the use or possession of drugs.

Weber is patient. His staff helps him gather the facts. But sometimes, he must release a student. And in that case, the Job Corps will never be an option again.

"I take that responsibility very seriously," Weber said. "I fight to keep them here."

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