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Anaconda Job Corps slated for closure; congressional delegation protests

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The Anaconda Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center will close, the U.S. Department of Labor announced Friday. 

Anaconda-Deer Lodge Chief Executive Officer Bill Everett said the center, which accepted its first enrollee in 1966, is set to shutter at the end of August and that the loss will be devastating. 

'Save our community! Save Anaconda Job Corps!'

Jade Rodgers, 11, holds a sign with a telephone number as she and Deidra Foster, 9, call out to passing cars along East Park Street in Anaconda. "We are worried about our neighbors. We know a lot of people who work there," says Rodgers.

The Job Corps provides training to students in a number of fields. Many of those are in manufacturing, in areas like heavy equipment operation, diesel mechanics, carpentry, masonry, welding, and more.

According to Everett, the Job Corps is also one of the biggest employers in Anaconda. And while a federal entity doesn’t pay taxes the way a private corporation does, it still means job losses for residents who pay property taxes.

In addition to that impact, Everett said the county relies heavily on the young people who go through the job training program. The Job Corps youth helped dig Anaconda out of the heavy snow storm in February that overwhelmed the Smelter City.

Everett said future projects, such as painting light poles and doing masonry work on the courthouse, will now be in jeopardy because the town of Anaconda likely won’t have the funds to pay for such work to be done without that help.

Anaconda's Job Corps will close

In this file photo, Anaconda Job Corps carpentry students Trysten Navarro, left, and MyKennah Lott work on rebuilding the Elk Park Volunteer Fire Department roof. The U.S. Department of Labor announced Friday that Anaconda's Job Corps will be closed.

“It kicks me right in the heart,” Everett said.

And Everett said there’s another cost to the Job Corps closing, as many of the young people who go through the Job Corps have been through tough times and have gotten into some trouble.

By giving the youth skills and work, Everett said it helps them transition to becoming more productive members of society. Without the program, Everett said the youth could wind up in correctional facilities instead.

“Everything has a cost,” Everett said. “This program is a positive cost.”

Jim Davison, executive director of the Anaconda Local Development Corp., echoed Everett's sentiments, also describing the closure as “devastating.”

“I’m devastated for the students out there, and I’m devastated for employees," Davison said.

A number of manufacturers in the region regularly source employees from the training center, including Butte aerospace part manufacturer Montana Precision Products, Intercontinental Truck Body Co. in Anaconda, and Anaconda Foundry Fabrication Co., according to Davison.

“Those are the jobs we need,” Davison said, noting that for a town that has sought stability and growth, being able to provide opportunities in these areas has been highly valuable — not only for workers looking for decent-paying jobs, but also for manufacturers, which have faced workforce shortages in recent years. 

Andrea Moore, human resource generalist and recruiter at Montana Precision Products, said the Job Corps has served as an employee “pipeline” for the company, which has been growing rapidly for several years to meet the demands of the aerospace industry.

In April of last year, the company had around 168 employees. As of May 6, it had 250 and hopes to reach 271 by the end of the year, according to previous stories.

The company has been focusing much of its efforts on recruiting highly skilled tungsten inert gas welders and has instituted an in-house training program to fulfill its needs. It has also partnered with the Job Corps to get locals trained in the center’s TIG lab, which it built with the help of a Community Development Block Grant, according to Davison.

“(The closure) puts us all back,” Davison said, noting that the Job Corps played an important role for the county, for employers, and for the local economic base all around.

Incidentally, Moore said, she had interviews lined up this week with Job Corps graduates.

The Anaconda Job Corps is one of nine civilian conservation centers across the country set for deactivation, according to a Department of Labor press release. 

According to the release, "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."

But Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, sharply objected to the wisdom of the action in a press release of his own.

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“Make no mistake, this decision will lead to an immediate loss of jobs in rural America and undermine economic development in communities like Anaconda moving forward,” Tester said, addressing officials who make the decision. “The magnitude of this decision on a community like Anaconda and the people of Montana is hard to overstate. I urge you to reconsider this irresponsible decision and instead work to create jobs and provide services to the rural west.” 

Tester vowed Friday morning to introduce legislation that would block the decision.

Later Friday, Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, both Republicans, sent a letter to Alexander Acosta, secretary of the Department of Labor, expressing appreciation for the "effort to better align CCC's organizational structure with the DOL's mission" while also urging him to "maintain Anaconda CCC's operating status or provide suitable and equivalent alternatives for the students currently served by the Anaconda CCC." 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has long operated and overseen Civilian Conservation Centers through the U.S. Forest Service, but the USDA recently transferred the program to the Department of Labor. 

First enrollee in Anaconda Job Corps

A Montana Standard photo from March 16, 1966, depicts the Anaconda Job Corps accepting its first enrollee. "A forest green carpet was rolled out at the airport here Tuesday for Bobbie Gandy, 17, of Culver, Ore., the first of an expected 212 youths being assigned to the Anaconda Job Corps Center on Foster Creek west of Anaconda," the photo's caption reads.

After taking over the program, the Department of Labor conducted a review of the 25 civilian conservation centers that considered "performance and outcome measurements, internal controls, capacity and proximity, costs, and ongoing needs against the overall Job Corps program to determine the best path forward," according to the department's press release. 

That review led to the decision to close nine centers and oversee the continued operation of 16 of the 25 centers under a new "contract operator or partnership."

The Trapper Creek Civilian Conservation Center in Darby is slated to be among those that will continue under one of these new arrangements. 

That would make Trapper Creek the only remaining Job Corps center in Montana. Until the end of February, the state had three. The Kicking Horse Job Corps Center in Ronan closed at the end of February after a reportedly sharp drop in enrollment.

The letter from Daines and Gianforte also noted "concerns about transition" to contract operators at the Trapper Creek facility and asked for further information about it.

Dave Sabo, district ranger for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Forest Service in Butte, said the local Forest districts hire roughly 50 youth from the Job Corps. Some are trained to become wildland firefighters. Others get trained to assist with building camps and doing other support jobs for the firefighters.

Sabo called hiring seasonal workers to fight fires “a challenge” and said losing the Job Corps youth will impact the Forest Service as well.

“It’s going to be tough for us if they’re not available,” Sabo said.

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Ted McDermott contributed reporting to this story.

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