By Mary Ellen Ardouny, President and CEO, The Corps Network
Earlier this month eight federal departments and agencies, including the Department of Interior, the Department of Labor, and the Environmental Protection Agency, announced the formal creation of a National Council to coordinate the establishment of a 21st Century Conservation Service Corps (21CSC). This council will implement the recommendations of a Federal Advisory Committee that I had the privilege to serve on as part of President Obama's Great Outdoors Initiative. As record high rates of youth unemployment continue as a result of the "Great Recession," the creation of a formal 21CSC program is an unquestionable victory for young people who are looking for work, especially if they enjoy spending time outside.
This idea, of course, is not new. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, employed more than 2.5 million young men to address a number of critical conservation needs being faced by the country at that time. The original "CCC Boys" received an education, job training, and a modest wage while leaving behind a vast legacy of parks, forests, trails, and structures that are still utilized today. When the United States entered World War II, many CCC members, having received basic skills and training through their Corps experience, entered the armed forces ready and able to serve their county abroad. Soon thereafter the CCC program soon ended. But in truth, the Corps idea and Corps have never really gone away.
There are currently more than 150 Corps operating nationwide enrolling approximately 30,000 young people each year. Some are operated by states, like the California Conservation Corps and Maryland Conservation Corps. Others, like New York City-based Green City Force and Austin-based American YouthWorks are independent nonprofits. While diverse, they all take pride in their connection to the legacy of the CCC and they all employ a variety of strategies to make young people more employable while making important contributions in their communities and to the country. In FY11, 84 percent of youth completing Corps programs went on to jobs, further education, or both. For many of these young people, it was their first paid work experience or jobs.
Unlike the original Civilian Conservation Corps, the 21CSC will not require a new large-scale and costly federally-operated program. Instead, it will cultivate public-private partnerships to expand the capacity of existing Corps and incubate new Corps where there is need.
It also bears mentioning that while the work of Corps has expanded since the time of the CCC to meet broader community and environmental needs, a substantial portion of the work that Corps accomplish still occurs on public lands, including national parks, forests, coastal areas, and wildlife refuges. At the federal level many of these places, including well-known national treasures like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Parks, have suffered from years of deferred maintenance adding up to a backlog estimated at $50 billion. In a time of shrinking federal, state, and local budgets, Corps can step in as a cost-effective means of addressing some of these maintenance needs, and the 21CSC will only expand the potential for young Americans to serve their country by creating a new legacy that will last.
As an additional benefit, the 21CSC will provide a way to connect Americans from diverse racial and economic backgrounds to their nation's public lands. Fifty-three percent of Corpsmembers nationwide are from racial minority groups. Sixty-one percent come from families living with incomes below the poverty line. In short, the 21CSC will help produce a new generation of conservation leaders that better represents the diversity of America. And while for some, the 21CSC will represent an opportunity for a new relationship with the great outdoors and/or a first job, for others it will provide a long-term career path. For instance, The Student Conservation Association, The Corps Network's oldest and largest member, estimates that an incredible 12% of the entirety of the National Park Service's workforce is alumni of its programs.
The 21CSC will also enroll returning military veterans to put their unique training and skills to use back home. Working with federal agencies and a nonprofit called Veterans Green Jobs, many Corps implemented a model for successfully engaging vets. In the past four years, over 400 veterans have participated in these joint programs and approximately half have entered natural resource careers following their participation in the Corps.
At The Corps Network, our goal is to help the National Council rapidly implement and increase the scale of the 21CSC. We hope that by 2018, the program will enroll up to 100,000 youth annually -- tripling the number of Corpsmembers currently serving nationwide. There is a strong precedent for such progress. According to the Department of the Interior, "youth employment has increased by 35 percent since the beginning of the Obama Administration, with an average of 20,000 young people employed per year" by DOI alone.
If you support the idea of putting young Americans to work while addressing critical community, national, and environmental needs, we hope you will support The Corps Network with a donation or by sharing our stories as we participate in the Huffington Post sponsored JobRaising Challenge. For updates on the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps, I encourage you to visit www.corpsnetwork.org, where you can also find out where Corps are currently operating near you.