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Oconaluftee Job Corps saved from closure

The forestry conservation program is one of the most popular career training paths offered at Oconaluftee Job Corps Center, which is currently under Forest Service management. The forestry conservation program is one of the most popular career training paths offered at Oconaluftee Job Corps Center, which is currently under Forest Service management.

The nine Job Corps CCC centers slated for closure this September, including the Oconaluftee center in Cherokee, will remain open after Congress put pressure on the Trump Administration to reverse the decision. 

The U.S. Department of Labor made the announcement May 24 that it had accepted Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s decision to close nine of the centers operated by the U.S. Forest Service by Aug. 31. The decision also called for another 16 centers — including LBJ CCC in Franklin and Schenck CCC in Pisgah Forest in Brevard — to continue operating but under a private contract operator.

The Job Corps program has been around for more than 50 years. The program — modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps established during the Great Depression — was part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and Great Society initiatives back in 1964. To date, it has trained and educated more than 2 million students at more than 100 Job Corps centers across the country, including three centers located in Western North Carolina.

The DOL posted notice of the plan to “deactivate” the nine centers and the public could submit their comments until July 1, but as of early June students at Oconaluftee were getting ready to transfer to other centers throughout the country or coming up with a plan to be on their own since the center was supposed to close Aug. 31. 

However, on June 19, DOL spokespeople said the plan to close the nine centers had been withdrawn. 

“For the time being, USDA does not intend to transfer these centers to DOL to allow management to determine a pathway that will maximize opportunity and results for students, minimize disruptions, and improve overall performance and integrity,” the USDA and DOL spokespersons said in an emailed statement. “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.”

Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, said it was the public’s response to the pending closure that made all the difference. 

“Thank you to everyone who submitted a public comment — 534 comments were received by the Department of Labor,” Queen wrote in his weekly newsletter. “We appreciate everyone for pitching in! Public pressure made the difference, and all of you were instrumental in saving this great program in Western North Carolina.”

Job Corps supporters were surprised to find Oconaluftee on the chopping block to begin with, especially if the DOL was looking to shut down centers that were not performing well. According to a March 2018 special report from the National Federation of Federal Employees, the union representing Forest Service employees, Oconaluftee ranks 21st out of the 125 Job Corps Centers in the nation. Considering its rank was 119th in 2014, the CCC center performance has come a long way in a short amount of time. 

“Such successes should be embraced and rewarded. Instead, DOL proposes to throw them on the trash heap,” the report stated. “The logic put forward in the President’s budget is that ALL publicly operated centers should be converted to privately run centers because of the alleged underperformance of publicly run centers as a group. If one were to use this logic with accurate data, then ALL privately-run centers should be converted to publicly run centers.”

The other reasoning for closing the nine CCC centers and privatizing the rest of them, according to Perdue, was to get the U.S. Forest Service out of managing programs that are not considered essential to their core mission. Several congressmen who have Job Corps Centers in their district argued that the program is essential to the mission of the Forest Service and that closures would have a negative impact on disaster relief responses in those areas. 

For example, many students at Oconaluftee are trained in wildland firefighting skills needed to fight wildfires. Those skills are in high demand throughout the region. The center closures would also resulted in the loss of more than 1,000 Forest Service jobs. 

U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Asheville, did not respond to a request for comment on this story. 

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