Labor Department chief says costs too high to keep Cass Job Corps center open

by Wesley Brown (wesbrocomm@gmail.com) 2,410 views 

Several Franklin County officials came to Little Rock to speak with the Trump administration’s top labor official, but returned home on Monday (June 17) with disappointing news about the future of the Cass Job Corps Center that has been a source of pride in the namesake Ozark community for nearly 50 years.

On May 25, Talk Business & Politics first reported that the Labor Department had quietly announced plans to shutter or outsource all of the nation’s rural Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers over the Memorial Day weekend, including the Cass CCC facility in Ozark, Arkansas. The nation’s 25 CCC Job Corps centers offer free-of-charge education and vocational training to young men and women between the ages of 16 to 24 in isolated, rural areas across the U.S.

During a panel discussion at the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce where U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta was pushing efforts by President Donald Trump to save American jobs by fast-tracking the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade pact (USMCA), Rep. Sarah Capp, R-Ozark, briefly quizzed the labor chief about the previously announced closure of the Cass Job Center over the Memorial Day weekend.

In direct questions to Acosta, Capp asked the Labor Secretary about the wisdom of closing the rural job center for troubled youth. Capp also said that as a local attorney, she has seen the impact the state’s only federally-approved rural Job Corps training facility has had on several generations of troubled teenagers and young adults.

“I am an attorney within juvenile court for ten years in (Franklin County), and I’ve applied for dispositions for these kids to be able to have opportunities to get an education and learn a trade, and I would just like you to explain the rationale behind the closing of nine centers across of the U.S., one of them being in my district,” Capp asked a surprised Acosta.

In explaining the reasoning by the Trump administration’s plan to “deactivate” the rural Job Corps training program, which will impact 54 jobs at the Cass job training center and more than 1,100 nationwide, Acosta said the decision to end the CCC program nationwide was a difficult one.

Acosta said DOL officials last month accepted a letter from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) stating that the USDA’s Forest Service will withdraw from operating the 28 Job Corps centers across the U.S. That decision, however, will not impact 125 Job Corps offices across the U.S., including the Little Rock office, which offers similar technical training programs for urban teenagers and youth.

“This program has been in effect about 40 years,” he said. “The Forest Service withdrawing it is in essence shutting down the Civilian Conservation Centers and those Job Corps centers will revert to the Labor Department.”

Based on the Trump administration’s fiscal review, the majority of CCC operations will be replaced by new contract operators or a partnership overseen by the Department of Labor. Centers with new operators will implement new policies and approaches that will offer students the skills they need to earn an independent living and succeed in meaningful in-demand jobs, officials said.

A Federal Register Notice by the Labor Department proposes nine CCCs for deactivation, including the Cass Job Center in Ozark that offers a tuition-free training and education in such technical areas as advance manufacturing, culinary arts, bricklaying, heavy equipment operations and carpentry.

In responding to Capp, Acosta encouraged the Arkansas legislator and other local Franklin County officials to send a letter to the Department of Labor during the federal comment period so that their concerns could be heard. He also acknowledged that the rural centers have help many troubled youth and teens across the U.S., but said the ongoing costs to continue the programs were not fiscally responsible.

“The goal is to provide skills to young Americans … that, you know, have had problems and they’ve had a tough life – so they are particularly difficult to scale up. I think we all can agree on this,” said the labor chief. “Now, we are in essence running 125 community colleges from Washington that are providing these skills. In this particular one, I think the per student cost is about $55,000 per student. So, these are really hard decisions.”

By shuttering the rural CCC facilities, Acosta said the Department of Labor’s widely held Job Corps program will be able to help more young people by shifting those dollars to the 125 urban job training centers with the highest sustained student performance outcomes, including Arkansas’ lone Job Corps campus at 6900 Scott Hamilton Drive in Little Rock.

“At the end of the day, because of the capacity we have throughout the (Job Corp) system, we are going to be able to provide more education to more young Americans,” said Acosta. “And part of the difficulty is that a lot of these (CCC) centers because they are smaller, they are very, very difficult to run and they are in areas that are not in high demand geographically. So, from a student perspective, we will be able to have more students in the system.”

Following Acosta’s explanation on the pending closure of the Cass facility, Ozark Mayor Roxie Hall and local Chamber President Tyler McKinney said after the State Chamber event that Franklin County officials were caught completely off-guard by the DOL announcement three weeks ago.

Hall and McKinney said the Cass Job Corps center has been a staple in the community for 47 years and has done a lot to help rebuild the community and the lives of the youth that come from troubled homes across the state, but leave with a work-ready skills and restored lives. In the past few years, youth participating in the rural job training program have built new sidewalks and remodeled buildings in downtown Ozark.

“The (youth) are such an asset in so many ways and they interact with other young people extremely well … and are giving back to the community,” said Hall.

The Ozark mayor added that more than 125 youth from across the state, who live on campus at the Cass facility, are now in limbo due to lack of clear information from the Department of Labor concerning the closure date. Hall said local city and county officials were originally told by DOL officials that the Cass facility would close in late September, but now that date has been moved up to July 1.

“The government came in two weeks ago and started tagging things that belong to the government,” she said.

McKinney also said that Acosta’s claim that more youth in Arkansas will be helped by shifting more federal dollars to the Little Rock Job Corps center is not true. The Cass job training center is located on 35 acres in rural Arkansas along the banks of Fane Creek near the Mulberry Scenic River and the Ozark National Forest. All students in the program live on the Job Corps campus, which includes a dormitory, cafeteria, store and several activity and fitness facilities.

“Most of those students have gang violence in their families or drugs,” said McKinney. “Putting them in a rural area gets them away from that. Putting them back in Little Rock in the middle of that will not help them.”

Besides the CCC location in Ozark, eight other rural job centers across the U.S. will close this year. Another 16 CCCs will continue under a new contract operator or partnership.

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