Job Corps program benefits communities, at-risk youth, disaster relief

Trump administration efforts to privatize and close centers met bipartisan pushback.

 

Editor's note: The federal government has reversed course and decided not to transfer or close any of the Forest Service run Job Corps centers. In a statement from Department of Agriculture and Labor spokespeople, the agencies wrote: "For the time being, USDA does not intend to transfer these centers to DOL... DOL and USDA will conduct a robust organizational review to determine the appropriate course of action keeping in mind the (Forest Service) mission, the students we serve, and the American taxpayers."

Twenty years ago, a judge in Wasco County, Oregon, helped Brian Hickman find a new path that changed his life. The 23-year-old had just served 30 days in jail. Afterward, hoping to give Hickman, who had struggled with addiction and homelessness, a fresh start, the judge allowed him to attend a job-training program for at-risk youth at the Timber Lake Jobs Corps campus outside of Estacada, Oregon.

There, surrounded by towering evergreen trees in Mount Hood National Forest, Hickman learned how to fix appliances and acquired other handyman skills. In the process, he became intrigued by the wastewater treatment facility at the Forest Service-operated campus. “I just fell in love with the science and math of it,” he said. Eventually, Hickman became the wastewater treatment manager’s apprentice. Two decades later, he now runs the plant. He also leads the Timber Lake Job Corps’ fire camp crew, which builds shelters and helps maintain supply lines for thousands of firefighters in the West each summer.

During a prescribed burn in the Sycan Marsh Preserve in the Klamath Basin, Oregon, an Angell Job Corps student assists with fire management. The center will soon be managed under the Department of Labor instead of the U.S. Forest Service.

But now Hickman may need to start looking for work again, because the Timber Lake Center is facing termination. In late May, the Trump administration announced plans to close some Job Corps campuses and privatize others, a move it says will cut costs and improve efficiency. The news has sent staff, students and communities scrambling for answers and rallying support for the Forest Service program. Opposition to dismantling it has united voices from across the West’s political spectrum. They argue that the federal government has an an important role to play, both in providing opportunities for at-risk youth and in addressing the growing threat of wildfires and other natural disasters.

The Timber Lake campus is one of 25 Forest Service-run Civilian Conservation Centers, part of a bigger Job Corps network of 123 facilities nationwide; the rest of the campuses are overseen by the Labor Department and operated by businesses, nonprofits and tribes. All of the facilities are mandated to teach job skills and serve low-income students. But the Forest Service centers are the only ones in the network that train and deploy students to work on fire crews and disaster relief. According to a 2018 agency report, in 2017, the program’s students provided more than 450,000 hours of labor on wildfires.

Forest Service Job Corps students also support the prescribed burning operations that scientists say are critical to reducing catastrophic forest fires in the West. That’s especially important, because most prescribed burning happens in spring and fall, when professional seasonal crews aren’t fully staffed. “We have the manpower to do the work, and we do it at a fraction of the cost,” said Hickman. The students help fire crews cover more ground, and in return they gain valuable work experience that can lead to a career. In the last three years, Hickman estimates that at least a dozen Timber Lake students have landed jobs as Forest Service firefighters.

While job training is the program’s main purpose, its benefits extend beyond the centers themselves, into the rural towns in which they’re located. The potential closure of Estacada’s Timber Lake campus has spurred a local printer to make “Save Job Corps” signs, and citizens are circulating petitions and calling a town hall meeting to discuss the impact of the program. “I can’t stress enough how valuable this program is,” said Connie Redmond, who’s lived in the small but growing mountain town for more than 30 years. Redmond, who works on local parades and festivals with the Downtown Estacada Commission, said Job Corps youth are often the unseen force behind community events.

Sources: U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Labor

The federal government initially planned to close nine Forest Service campuses — three of which are in the West — by the end of September. The other 16 centers will be transferred to the Labor Department, meaning the campuses will now be run by private contractors and not the federal government. As currently organized, privately run centers do not provide wildfire or disaster response services. Between the privatization and the closures, more than 1,000 Forest Service employees are expected to lose their current jobs — though one center appears to have escaped decommissioning. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., recently told students and staff of the campus in Anaconda, Montana, that it would remain open, after he lobbied President Donald Trump on its behalf. 

A suite of unlikely congressional allies have also come to Job Corps’ defense, from stalwart conservatives like eastern Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers to progressive Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley. They say the closures will impact rural communities and hurt federal fire and disaster relief operations. They also question whether the massive layoffs and reorganization efforts violate the budget guidelines set for the Labor Department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which includes the Forest Service. According to the legislators, those guidelines do not include any authorization for the overhaul. Within a week of the announcement, lawmakers introduced legislation that would block the agencies from dismantling the Forest Service-run portion of the Job Corps program.

According to the federal government closing and privatizing the centers will save money and increase access to job training. Agriculture Department press releases have also noted, that the Forest Service’s core mission is land management, not workforce education. When questioned about the changes to the program, Department of Agriculture and Department of Labor spokespeople responded in part: “We have heard from Members of Congress, retirees, and other stakeholders about concerns with closing (U.S. Forest Service) Job Corps centers. As USDA looks to the future, it is imperative the USFS focuses on and prioritizes its core natural resource mission to improve the condition and resilience of our Nation's forests.” While the Trump administration has argued that privatizing the programs will make them more effective, Forest Service numbers published in May 2018 defy that logic: The federally run facilities represent four of the nation’s top 10-ranked Job Corps centers, and account for only two of the bottom 30 facilities.

Federal agencies are still considering how to respond to the pushback. And not all former students are defending the program: Several Timber Lake graduates told me over Facebook messenger that the basic education requirements got in the way of more meaningful vocational studies. Other complaints were that the campus was dirty and run-down, and that bullying was common. 

Briana Boyer, who attended the Timber Lake campus in the late ’90s, said she’s not surprised to hear stories like that: “When you put together a bunch of kids, there’s always a lot of tomfoolery and hooligans.” But, she said, the skills she gained through the program have helped her as an adult. At the Timber Lake campus, Boyer, now a stay at-home mom in Medford, Oregon, learned how to weld and do clerical work. But what she values about the program today is less the trades she learned than the discipline and life skills. “It sounds silly, but they taught me how to clean,” she said.

Boyer found her Job Corps training so helpful that, two decades after graduating from the program, she helped her niece, Kerri Boyer, sign up for it. Kerri Boyer gave rave reviews of the Forest Service-run Columbia Basin Job Corps center in Moses Lake, Washington, which is slated for privatization. “The opportunity here is absolutely amazing,” she wrote me. “It is hard, but it does so much good for the people that can complete it.”

 

Carl Segerstrom is an assistant editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, Washington. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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