The Trump administration Wednesday reversed course on its May announcement that it would close or privatize a lot of Job Corps centers across the country, including two in Montana. The program focuses on trade skills, wildfire response and education. Nick Mott reports from the Trapper Creek Job Corps in Darby.
The Department of Labor announced in late May it would close or transfer all 25 Forest Service Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers across the country. In Montana, the Anaconda Job Corps would have been shuttered and the Trapper Creek Job Corps here in Darby would have been transferred to Department of Labor or private management.
Putting a bright blue flame to the frame of a pigpen, Elvin Dog Taking Gun is wearing a darth-vader-style mask covered in bright stickers. He’s 22, and on the welding track here at the Trapper Creek Job Corps.
He got the news the administration is scrapping the rollbacks on Wednesday night.
"Everyone was just excited, everyone was like cheering and clapping."
The possible transfer meant students worried the program might change for the worse under new management. Employees worried they’d lose their jobs entirely. Dog Taking Gun says students here found out they were safe in a dorm meeting.
"I felt like hugging every single one of them, but I felt like it woulda taken too long."
He’s originally from the Blackfeet Reservation, but he moved to Missoula when he was 12. After high school, he tried college out, but he found himself in and out of jail.
"This place means a lot to me. It gave me a second chance, that’s for sure."
The Trump Administration’s plan faced opposition from dozens of congresspeople. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urged the administration to stop the plan, and so did Democrats Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Montana’s entire congressional delegation voiced opposition. Democratic Sen. Jon Tester introduced legislation that would stop the transfer, co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Steve Daines. Rep. Greg Gianforte co-sponsored an amendment in the House that would have done the same.
Here at Trapper Creek, there’s been a collective sigh of relief.
"This place has done so much for me. I came here two months out of prison, so really just turned my life around. All that stuff’s behind me. It’s kinda helped turn the page."
That’s 22-year-old Robert White. He’s studying welding. Students here learn all kinds of trade skills, from carpentry to firefighting. The facility here serves more than 350 students per year. Across the country, the program serves more than 4,000.
"I’ve never been a part of such a close-knit group of people who just want to support each other and help each other succeed," he says.
The administration cited poor outcomes at some Job Corps when it announced the rollbacks, and the Forest Service later said it wanted to focus on its core mission as an agency. But at the Trapper Creek Job Corps, students provided more than 40,000 hours of wildland firefighting in 2017. Across the country, the program provides hundreds of thousands of hours of firefighting every year, often in national forests.
Center Director Jesse Casterson says, when he looks around at the Corps, "It fills me with pride and joy and happiness, and also anger and hate and hurt and disappointment."
Casterson says he was heartbroken when he got the news in May. That hurt comes from what he’s been through this last month.
"As Bilbo Baggins says, I feel like butter spread over a little too much bread."
He says Trapper Creek is consistently one of the highest performing Job Corps in the country. They’re number two in job retention after graduation. The Anaconda Job Corps is also one of the top-ranked in the country for student success after the program. But Casterson says the data alone doesn’t do the community here justice.
"It’s difficult for me to continue to prove our worth. We do amazing things for amazing people in an amazing country. The proof’s in the pudding. We’re happy today though."
Last week, an open house for the Job Corps turned out a standing-room-only crowd of more than 400 in Hamilton. Casterson says that’s because the Corps serves a vital role in the community. They do service projects from gating Forest Service roads and welding fire rings for campsites, to giving the local school a fresh coat of paint.
"In terms of rural development, Darby does not have the money to pass a levy to paint their school. They do not have the financial ability to do some of these little projects, these things that we can do free of cost," Casterson says.
Remember those pigpens Elvin Taking Gun was welding? Those are to help out at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds, where there’s some serious porcine overcrowding going on.
Melissa Saville is the fairgrounds manager.
"We probably wouldn’t have been able to do a lot of our projects without their help," Saville says. "They’re painters, they’re welders, they’re project people. Pretty much every piece of cement that has been laid over here has their name on it."
She says the area just doesn’t have the population to support lots of the services the community needs. And businesses in the area are desperate for skilled labor.
"I have talked to many employers that said that they count on the Job Corps to turn out kids with skillsets, and they hire 'em right out of there. It’s a skillset that you don’t get anywhere else. It’s, it’s phenomenal."
But Saville said that she’s cautious with her celebration. She knows the program continually faces harsh scrutiny.
The Kicking Horse Job Corps in Ronan, run by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes through a contract with the Department of Labor, was closed down earlier this year.