The Relevancy of the California Conservation Corps For 2011

Michael Bernick
Counsel with the international law firm of Duane Morris LLP, a Milken Institute Fellow and former Director of the California Employment Development Department

The California Conservation Corps (CCC) will be 35 years old
this year. It is going strong and in fact is poised to expand. Its experience
is most relevant to a debate in California workforce circles today: what are
the needed job skills in the emerging California economy, and how young
Californians can best achieve these skills.  

The Corps was founded by Jerry Brown in July 1976, who
described it as "a combination Jesuit seminary, Israeli kibbutz and Marine
Corps boot camp." It sought to bring together California youth of various
backgrounds, income levels and races. The youth would be placed in residential
settings, outside of urban areas, and put to work on conservation tasks that were
real work: fire containment, trail construction, stream restoration, tree
planting. In this work, the youth would contribute to the California community,
and also develop the skills to navigate in the job world and in life.

The CCC thrived over the years in its discipline, daily
structure of physical exercise and education, and emphasis on the hard, outdoor
work associated with conservation and emergency response projects. It drew
revenue not only from direct state funding, but also from contracts with other
state, local and private agencies for conservation tasks.  In the current fiscal year, the CCC deploys
around 1400 participants at any one time, from twenty-seven locations.   

Further, the CCC has given rise to a movement of local conservation
corps program in California, starting with the Marin Conservation Corps, East
Bay Conservation Corps, and San Francisco Conservation Corps in the early 1980s
and spreading throughout the state. Currently there are thirteen local conservation
corps programs in California, with 1200 California youth enrolled. Most of the
local corps programs are linked to charter schools, enabling participants
without high school degrees to obtain them, and those with high school degrees
to improve literacy skills.

Martha Diepenbrock was the first director of the Los Angeles
Conservation Corps in 1986 and has been involved in the Corps movement since
its inception. She describes the interplay of service and training as follows:
"The dual mission of the corps, youth development and the accomplishment of
work, is fundamental to the success of the corps. The work is the vehicle for
youth development. Youth enter the Corps intending to serve. But, it is in the
service that they grow and find confidence and direction."

The CCC and local Corps in California repeatedly have come
out on top of studies
of various youth training programs over the years in reduced arrest rates among
ex-offenders who are participants as well as high employment outcomes among all
participants. The skills they are teaching-work orientation, work confidence,
reading and problem solving skills–are precisely those that employers value.
For years, California employers have been telling workforce practitioners that
for most jobs, they are not looking for specific vocational skills, but rather
work orientation and general skills.  

Which brings us to the current workforce debate on youth
skills, and particularly the role of vocational training. Of course, vocational
training is one of the youth training strategies. But former Governor
Schwarzenegger often made too much of its role. Programs that provide work
experience in a disciplined setting, or that teach general education skills, or
that combine both, can have superior longer term employment outcomes to
training in a specific vocation-especially as the emerging job world in
California will see even greater movement among jobs and occupations.

Judge Anthony Kline for thirty years has been at the center
of the corps movement, its development and sustainability, and continues today to
be a main proponent for the CCC and local corps. When Michael Krisman and I saw
him in Sacramento last week, he spoke of the corps’ role in the future, its
continuing relevancy for the state’s youth, particularly the most at-risk
youth, and potential new directions for the future.  The CCC and local corps do need to continue
to evolve in the next years; while they do not depart too far from their
classic values, as summarized by former CCC Director B.T. Collins,  "hard work, low pay, and miserable
conditions".  

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