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By Thomas E. Perez

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson made good on his promise of a “War on Poverty” with the Economic Opportunity Act. As he signed the new law, he declared that it “will strike at poverty’s roots” in a way that “is prudent and practical … consistent with our national ideals.”

One of the bill’s key elements was the establishment of the Job Corps, a residential education and training program for low-income young people run by the U.S. Labor Department. At 125 centers in 48 states, students get the skills and confidence necessary to succeed in good jobs in more than 100 occupations – from auto maintenance to information technology, health care to hospitality, construction to culinary arts.

Here in Western New York, the Iroquois and Cassadaga Job Corps centers offer training in a combined 13 areas, including nurse assistant, home health aide, pharmacy technician, pre-apprentice electrical and pre-apprentice carpentry. And regional employers like Zehnder-Rittling of Buffalo, Genesee County Nursing Home and Barden Homes consider the two centers to be pipelines for skilled talent. They turn to Job Corps first when they are hiring.

And for good reason. Not only does Job Corps provide work-based learning and on-the-job training, but kids who haven’t completed high school can earn their diploma or GED. Job Corps also teaches discipline, teamwork, leadership, communication and problem solving – skills increasingly essential to success not only at work, but in life.

Serving our society’s most disconnected young people is, without question, an ambitious undertaking. Without Job Corps, many of them are lost.

And Job Corps works. More than 80 percent of Job Corps students were placed in jobs, entered the military or continued their education in 2013. Out of difficult circumstances, they take control over their own destinies and punch their tickets to the middle class. They become mechanics, or welders, or pastry chefs – productive and contributing members of our society and our economy.

Because it embodies one of our most cherished, foundational principles – that opportunity in America should not be reserved just for the lucky – Job Corps has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress and local government. As it should. Fifty years since its founding, we still need Job Corps. It is no longer just a program; it has become a part of who we are as a nation.

I salute all those young people who made the decision to invest in themselves by gaining skills through Job Corps. On Labor Day 2014, as we celebrate the contributions that working people make to the strength and prosperity of our nation, let’s also celebrate the Job Corps students who will go on to make their own contributions. They will be a big reason to celebrate Labor Day for years to come.

Thomas E. Perez, a native of Buffalo, is the U.S. Secretary of Labor.