State Politics

The Centennial Job Corps in Nampa quietly closed and sent its students away. Here’s why

Centennial Job Corps Students in Nampa Learn Wildland Firefighting

Students in the Centennial Job Corps in Nampa, Idaho, learn about advanced wildland firefighting in this 2018 video. The U.S. Forest Service ran Centennial in partnership with the U.S. Labor Department until April 2019, when Centennial closed.
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Students in the Centennial Job Corps in Nampa, Idaho, learn about advanced wildland firefighting in this 2018 video. The U.S. Forest Service ran Centennial in partnership with the U.S. Labor Department until April 2019, when Centennial closed.

The federal government has struck a deal to transfer oversight of a 54-year-old program meant to provide job skills for disadvantaged teenagers and young adults to the state of Idaho.

But the move to shift the Centennial Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center in Nampa has triggered opposition from a union that represents federal workers, and from a longtime Centennial career counselor who worries that young people on the margins may no longer be served by the program.

The Job Corps, founded by Sargent Shriver, President John F. Kennedy’s brother-in-law and the first director of the Peace Corps, was set up to provide high school dropouts and others struggling to find employment a way to learn job and life skills that would keep them off welfare. It also allowed them to obtain a General Equivalency Degree or high school diploma.

There are questions about how well the Job Corps fulfills its mission. A 2018 report by the U.S. Labor Department’s inspector general concluded that the Job Corps, which receives $1.7 billion in annual funding to train 50,000 students a year, was unable to demonstrate “beneficial job training outcomes.”

Still, the program has success stories. Boxer George Foreman is a Job Corps graduate. So is retired Idaho Court of Appeals Judge Sergio Gutierrez.

Gutierrez, who previously served on the Centennial Job Corps board of directors, dropped out of high school after the ninth grade and worked in farm fields and held other menial jobs before enrolling at the Wolf Creek Job Corps Center outside Glide, Oregon.

He credits the program with changing his life.

“We had some great instructors,” he said in a 2015 interview with the Idaho Statesman. “Not only were they good in their areas of expertise, but in their social skills and personal skills. They caused us to want to mature, but they also did it in a way that was not intimidating, condescending or abusive. They treated us like men and were very respectful.”

Centennial closes, students quit

On Monday, the Idaho Department of Labor took over administration of the Centennial Job Corps program. It inherits a program that has no students. That’s because Centennial quietly shut down in April, sending half of its 240 students to other Job Corps programs and forcing 40 percent to quit, said Christine Dolan, a longtime Centennial career counselor.

“We had to ask them to resign if they weren’t willing to be relocated, because we no longer had a program,” Dolan said.

About 10 percent of the students were able to finish the program and graduate before the shutdown, she said.

The state plans to start its program in October, serving 150 students, 50 of whom would live at the center, located at 3201 Ridgecrest Drive, just north of Interstate 84. Through a partnership with the College of Western Idaho, the center would provide education and career technical training.

In the second and third years, the state has plans to partner with other community colleges to add students, possibly bringing participation up to 750 students, according to a fact sheet provided to the Statesman by the Idaho Department of Labor.

While the Centennial Job Corps served students from Idaho, Oregon and Washington, the state-based program will be limited to Idahoans from across the state.

Change is a 3-year demonstration

Late last year, a month before he left office, Gov. Butch Otter announced that Idaho had agreed to operate the Centennial center as part of a three-year demonstration project funded by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Last week, the National Federation of Federal Employees announced its opposition to the deal, saying the two programs aren’t comparable.

“Centennial trains, equips and provides real-world experience for students at all levels for success in the workforce,” Randy Erwin, the union’s president, said in a news release. “A community college is not equipped to handle this diversity of capabilities. Many of the students who would have come to Centennial will be forgotten.”

The union, which represents about 100,000 federal workers, said the change would result in the loss of 77 staff jobs and millions of dollars in local commerce that supports the center and up to 300 students.

It’s unclear whether some or all of those workers will be offered jobs with the state program. Jani Revier, the director of the Idaho Department of Labor, said Centennial’s workers can apply for jobs with the state Department of Labor as they are posted. Other workers will come from CWI and any businesses with a contract.

State denies development motivation

Erwin said the change is tied to interest in developing the land surrounded by the Ridgecrest and Centennial golf courses. The golf course properties, like the Job Corps, sit on land owned by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

“The state of Idaho wants to throw all of that away because someone has their eye on the Centennial center land,” he said.

Niki Forbing-Orr, a department spokeswoman, said there are no plans to develop the land. The 30-year lease with the federal government will continue through Jan. 5, 2025, she said.

“Nothing is going to change,” she said by telephone.

The land was originally part of a 600-acre parcel for the Idaho State School and Hospital, which opened in 1918. At one time, the State School and Hospital served more than 1,100 developmentally disabled people. Known today as the Southwest Idaho Treatment Center, it houses only about 20 patients. Last month, several families sued the state over abuse discovered there.

Some students fought fires

Dolan, who works for a Job Corps contractor, said she’s worried the state program will let the kinds of young adults that the Job Corps has served fall through the cracks. Only about 10 percent of the students are suitable for college studies, she said.

“If they were, they would have never come to the Job Corps program,” she said.

The U.S. Forest Service operated Centennial in cooperation with the U.S. Labor Department. Some of Centennial’s students trained to be wildland firefighters and fought fires on the Boise and Payette national forests. Other students thinned trees, assisted with trail maintenance and completed fisheries projects.

Part of the focus at Centennial — reportedly the second-highest-rated Job Corps in the nation in 2018 — was to teach students life skills, how to work well with others, how to be punctual and how to dress appropriately for a job. Many students had never held a job before and possessed few work skills, she said.

“A lot of these kids don’t know what it’s like to get up in the morning and brush their teeth, make their beds and have three meals in a day,” Dolan said. “CWI isn’t going to provide that to students who are still living at home.”

CWI mum on its role

Ashley Smith, spokesman for the College of Western Idaho, said the college will provide the educational component for the state program. He referred a reporter to the Idaho Department of Labor for details.

Revier said in an email to the Idaho Statesman that the demonstration project, known as the Idaho JOBCorps Program, will serve young adults ages 16 to 24 “by connecting them to training and workplace opportunities that will jump-start them into a career.”

Neither the federal government nor the Idaho Department of Labor has said how much money will be spent on the Centennial project.

The students will explore their skills, interests and aptitudes to identify a career pathway. That could lead them to complete a high school diploma, a GED, career technical training and, in some cases, a college associate’s degree.

“Job Corps centers around the country aim to assist income-eligible youth by connecting them to training and jobs that empower them to become contributing members of society,” Revier wrote. “This grant demonstration project gives Idaho the opportunity to customize the Job Corps model to fit Idaho’s needs.”

Centennial director not taking calls

A woman who answered the phone at the Centennial Job Corps on Thursday afternoon said center Director Michelle Woods was not taking calls.

The Job Corps has a long history in Idaho. Two of the first centers opened in 1965 in Mountain Home and Marsing.

The Mountain Home center shut down four years later, while the Marsing center operated until 1997, when it was replaced by the new and larger Centennial center.

Last month, the Trump administration backed down from a plan to close nine Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers. The closures would have led to job losses for 1,100 federal employees in Oregon, Washington, Montana, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Arkansas and Kentucky. Sixteen other centers operated by the Forest Service for 55 years would have been transferred to the U.S. Department of Labor, which contracts with private companies to operate 98 other Job Corps centers.

The change in plans came after the administration faced bipartisan pressure to keep the centers open.

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Reporter John Sowell has worked for the Statesman since 2013. He covers business and growth issues. He grew up in Emmett and graduated from the University of Oregon.If you like seeing stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.
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