A Western Slope job center that has been helping educate and employ rural youth for over 50 years through a federal job corps program will soon be taken over by a private contractor.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced May 24 it is ending its long-standing Forest Service job training program. Nine of the 25 centers nationwide that serve rural youth are closing.
The only such center in Colorado, the Collbran Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center, will likely be privatized, but employees don’t know when and how that will happen, according to the center Director Evonne Stites. The 46 employees there will lose their jobs at an undetermined point in the future. Stites, who’s been with the center for two decades, said she was told by federal officials that she and the rest of the staff would have the option to retire or to re-apply and interview for their positions with the unnamed contractor.
“We know that Collbran Job Corps will continue,” Stites said. “We don't know exactly what it will look like.”
For now, the center will continue accepting new students every two weeks as usual. Stites said she has not been told to end the program.
A Department of Labor spokesperson said in a statement: "This reform will allow the Job Corps program to serve more students at better performing centers at a lower cost to taxpayers. As a result of these reforms, Job Corps will be able to serve 1,600 more students each year, and better prepare them for success."
U.S. Representative Scott Tipton and senators Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet joined more than 50 other members of Congress in sending the USDA and Department of Labor a letter questioning the move and asking them to reverse the decision.
“After a difficult year of natural disasters and with hurricane and wildfire season quickly approaching, now is precisely the wrong time to be reducing capacity at CCCs,” the members of Congress wrote in the letter. “These centers not only help support these underserved youth and young adults with invaluable job training, but they also provide essential capacity for the U.S. Forest Service to fulfill its mission and provide economic opportunities in rural areas.”
Collbran students spend thousands of hours every year fighting fires in the state, Stites said.
The centers employ 1,100 people nationwide, operate in 17 national forests and grasslands across 16 states and provide training to over 3,000 young people, according to a news release. Many students come from low-income communities in rural areas.
“This action creates an opportunity to serve a greater number of students at higher performing centers at a lower cost to taxpayers by modernizing and reforming part of the Job Corps program,” Department of Labor officials said in a release.
Stites said the “ amount of hours and time we spend and volunteer is invaluable as far as I'm concerned,” Stites said. “The other thing that we help these young people do is to understand their value, that they are just as good or better than any student in any place across the nation. They are cared for. They are vocationally trained. They are provided an education and they can also earn their GED. They are taught their importance in making the world a better place.”
The Department of Labor did not immediately answer calls for comment.