Privatization of Trapper Creek Job Corps would ripple across forests, towns, schools

In Darby, the Trapper Creek center could see 55 full-time Forest Service staff lose their jobs, though the impacts go beyond that. It could mean empty houses, closed businesses and fewer students in school.

Late last month, Brian Shay joined a national call with workers employed at the federal network of Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers, including his at Trapper Creek outside of Darby.

During that call with Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen, Shay learned that Trapper Creek and 15 other centers will be discarded to a private contractor. Nine others, including the Anaconda Job Corps, will close.

“Shock is the biggest thing,” said Shay. “What it would mean is that all the staff here would lose their federal jobs, and there’s no guarantee for employment with the contractor.”

The Trump administration announced last month that it planned to transfer the Job Corps and its sites from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Labor, effectively killing the program in its current form.

The Job Corps formed in 1966 under President Lyndon Johnson and was based on the Civilian Conservation Corps model founded in the 1930s by President Franklin Roosevelt. The Trapper Creek site is housed at one of those CCC camps and has trained thousands of students over the years.

The administration’s move has angered Sen. Jon Tester and other members of Congress, including Sen. Steve Daines. It’s expected to result in 1,100 layoffs, most of those in rural communities like Darby and Anaconda, which rely on the jobs the centers provide.

In Darby, the Trapper Creek center could see 55 full-time Forest Service staff lose their jobs, though Shay said the impacts go beyond that. It could mean empty houses, closed businesses and fewer students in school.

“If those folks were to be gone, there’s about 15 students in the Darby school system from those staff members, and that would impact the Darby school system, and Darby is small anyway,” said Shay. “There’s no guarantee that our integration with the Forest Service for the fire work would get done, or that the trails work would get done.”

Like the nation’s other Job Corps centers, the Trapper Creek program has been managed under the Department of Agriculture since the 1960s to train low-income and disadvantaged youth ranging in age from 16 to 24.

Students at the Trapper Creek center come from Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, along with Texas and Arizona. During their time in the program, they earn the equivalent of a GED if they don’t have a high-school diploma. They also gain a variety of skills in the vocational trades, from welding and carpentry to electrical maintenance and the culinary arts.

“We train the holistic person,” said Shay. “We don’t want the kids to just get a job, we want them to be able to get a job and keep a job and get promoted in that job over time. We look for a fair amount of consistency, and we’re pretty tough in regards to accountability.”

The Trapper Creek center is ranked in the top three among the nation’s 120 Job Corps programs for its job placement and the wages earned by its graduates. It also plays a robust role in assisting the Forest Service in fighting fires and building trails.

Last year, Trapper Creek students completed 118 miles of trail work across the Bitterroot National Forest. It also attached dozens of students to fire crews in Darby, West Fork and Sula.

This year, it will add Seeley Lake to the mix.

“The fire crew that’s stationed here is primarily geared toward initial attack, allowing some of those forest crews to respond to other fires in other areas,” said Shay. “If we weren’t here, those crews would be restricted to this area to do the initial attack work.”

The Trump administration’s plan to kill the program would see a drawdown begin this fall. When it’s completed, according to the Washington Post, it will mark the largest layoff of civil servants since the realignment of military bases in 2010.

Shortly after Shay received that call from the Forest Service, the Department of Labor issued a press release stating its plans to modernize and reform the Job Corps program. It part, the release said: “This action creates an opportunity to serve a greater number of students at higher performing centers at a lower cost to taxpayers.”

Tester called it hogwash.

“Privatization means they’ll cut them a check for a certain sum of money, probably far less than they’re getting now, and they’ll have to go out and raise the rest of it,” Tester told the Missoula Current this week. “If they don’t, they’ll have to lay people off. And if they lay people off, they’ll have to cut programs and they won’t take as many kids. It’s not a smart thing.”

Tester has led the fight against the Trump administration’s plans to kill the program. This week, he introduced legislation with Sen. John Boozman, R-Louisiana, that would prohibit the use of funds to close any Job Corps center in Fiscal Years 2019 and 2020.

It would also prohibit any agency secretary, including Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, from changing the interagency agreement that facilitates the program.

Sen. Steve Daines has joined the legislation and last week, he told state reporters that he called Trump directly on a Saturday to encourage him to keep the Anaconda site open.

Daines said the president agreed to do so, but didn’t know the future of Trapper Creek.

“That was never on the closure list, but I know there’s some administrative transfers going on from Agriculture to DOL,” Daines said. “My focus was on Anaconda. That would have had an impact of roughly 250 lost jobs, along with the role they play in wildland firefighting and the role they play with our trade unions and apprentice programs.”

It’s the loss of those trade programs that has Tester most concerned. Nearly 200 students are currently enrolled at the Trapper Creek center, and as many as 350 students move through the program each year, according to Shay.

Nearly 80 percent of the students graduate from the program into a job, and it’s those jobs that are sorely needed in Montana’s economy, Tester said.

“These Job Corps aren’t the answer to all of our workforce problems, but it’s a huge piece of the puzzle because you’re taking at-risk kids and giving them a trade that’s usable across this country, including in rural America,” he said. “I see how they help turn kids who are going to be a user of social programs into someone who’s paying into the coffers and making this country economically sound.”

While Tester has at times worked with the Trump administration on other issues, including reforms to the Veterans Administration, he has emerged as a vocal critic of the White House’s plans to kill the Job Corps program.

He maintained that criticism this week when discussing the Trapper Creek and Anaconda sites. Tester said members of both political parties oppose the administration’s move.

“This isn’t a congressional problem, it’s an administration problem,” Tester said. “There’s bipartisan support for those Job Corps centers here in Washington, DC. We funded it. The administration has decided not to use the dollars.”

“I don’t know who’s driving the boat over there,” he added. “I don’t know if this is a decision that came out of the president’s office or someone who’s a contributor to the president, but it’s a bad decision.”