September closing will result in loss of approximately 60 jobs and related occupational tax money
By Eugenia Jones and By Greg Bird
Unless Congressional leaders intervene and stop the planned closure of the Pine Knot Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center in September 2019, McCreary County will lose a significant number of well-paying federal jobs, reliable source of occupational tax dollars, and dependable pool of community service volunteers.
On Friday, the U.S. Department of Labor accepted a letter from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) stating the USDA’s Forest Service will withdraw from operating Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers (CCC) throughout the nation. As a result, sixteen of the twenty-five federal Job Corps CCC across the U.S. will remain open, but be privatized under a new contract operator or partnership overseen by the U.S. Department of Labor while the nine remaining Job Corps CCCs, including the one located in Pine Knot, will be deactivated.
Deactivation of the Pine Knot Center could negatively impact McCreary County in numerous ways. In a county already offering limited job opportunities, closure of the Center will result in the loss of approximately sixty designated jobs as well as additional contract work.
In addition to the loss of jobs, McCreary County’s financially tight county budget will lose occupational taxes generated by Job Corps CCC employees. Since Job Corps staff, administrators, and students do much of their shopping locally, community businesses such as grocery stores, hardware stores, and gas stations can expect a negative impact as they will lose an established base of customers. Equally as important as the lost revenue, closure of the Center will result in McCreary County losing thousands of community service hours routinely provided by Job Corps students. These community service hours include providing DJ and catering services during local nonprofit and charitable events, assistance with local government construction projects, assistance with wildfire fighting, and assistance with PRIDE clean-up efforts. Students from the Job Corps have also provided extensive work on County parks and trails.
Over the past year alone students have performed tree services at the McCreary County Golf Course and Pine Knot Cemetery and helped with tree removal and installation of Christmas lights in Stearns. They also provide firewood to local senior citizens and disabled residents of the county.
McCreary County Judge Executive Jimmie Greene said news of the impending closure was sudden and shocking.
“If the closure comes to pass it would be a huge loss for McCreary County,” Greene said. “Not only economically, but socially as well. For nearly half a century the Job Corps has been an integral member of our community. The staff and students have performed many good deeds and helped with countless local projects at no cost to us. I do not want to imagine what McCreary County would be without the Job Corps.”
Greene, along with Deputy Judge Nathan Nevels met with Job Corps officials Wednesday to discuss the news with Job Corps officials, who encouraged county officials and residents to contact their representatives to ask for the issue to be reconsidered.
Greene stated he has already made contact with state and federal elected officials to talk about the possibility of keeping the local center open, and pledged to continue to do so.
Rumors regarding possible closure of the facility at Pine Knot have surfaced periodically throughout the years. However, Friday’s announcement came quickly and unexpectedly. Pine Knot Job Corps Center Director Brandon Pfelimeier stated on Tuesday that he was not at liberty to answer questions from the media. However, McCreary County’s Larry King, with thirty-seven years of experience working on CCC matters and who serves as special assistant to the President of the National Federation of Federal Employees International Associations of Machinists (IAM)-a diverse national union representing many federal employees, was able to provide some details.
“We got a foreshadowing that this was coming and three of us representing federal employees were directed to fly out to Denver, Colorado where Job Corps directors were meeting for an annual conference,” explained King, who is also a former Vice President of the Forest Service Civilian Conservation Corps and former national President of the Forest Service Council. “We met with the directors and broke the news to them. The next day the Department of Labor and U.S.D.A. came out with the announcement.”
King feels the announcement regarding the closures was purposefully kept quiet as long as possible, and he questions an apparent lack of prior Congressional notification or contact before the announcement was made.
King is actively working to prevent closure of Job Corps Civilian Conservation Corps facilities. He urges McCreary County residents to repeatedly contact their Congressional leaders in regard to deactivation of the Center in Pine Knot.
“Contacting Congressional leaders once won’t do any good-get in touch with them repeatedly,” King advised. “Give them specific examples of how the community will be affected by the local closure and always ask for status of this proposal. Each time, ask your Congressional leader what he/she is doing to help prevent the loss of the Center. It probably wouldn’t hurt to ask how they feel about Congress being bypassed in the announcement of this decision.”
According to figures released by McCreary County Judge Executive Jimmie Greene’s office the Pine Knot Job Corps reported salary totals for the past fiscal year at $4.26 million as well as utility and local contract payments totaling $600,000.
Current enrollment stands at 109 students, about 72 percent of capacity. In the past year 244 students have completed the program, with 173 receiving their high school diploma or HSE. 227 were placed in to a job, eight in to the military and 60 placed elsewhere, such as college.
In 2019 students and staff at the Pine Knot Job Corps participated in over 20,000 hours of various national forest fire suppression efforts across the country
Apparently the decision to close the local center and eight others across the country came about after Department of Labor reviews of the program showed some centers operating below standards for the costs associated with the overall program. In the past year, the Pine Knot Job Corps CCC has operated at 70-80 percent of its 150-student capacity. Across the country about 3,000 students enroll in the Job Corps annually.
According to the official press release from the Department of Labor, a review was conducted of the CCC’s performance, capacity, and costs at each center then compared to the overall Job Corps program to determine “the best path forward.” The “path” appears to be a complete reworking of the Job Corps program.
“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,” the release stated.
The centers that will remain open under new contract operators will work in partnership with the Department of Labor and will implement new policies that will “offer the students the skills they need to earn an independent living and succeed in meaningful in-demand jobs.”
Despite the findings of the Department of Labor’s review, other recent data comparing Job Corps CCC against contract centers indicate seventeen of the Job Corps CCCs are in the top half of the best performing centers while only seven are in the bottom half. In contrast, forty-three of the contract centers are in the top half while fifty are in the bottom.
The employees affected by the change will reportedly be offered assistance in finding other jobs within the department, or be offered incentives or buyouts. The agency will be requesting authority for a reduction in force, which has to go through the Office of Personnel Management due to the size of staff cuts anticipated. It is estimated that about 1,100 Job Corps employees face potential loss of jobs, making this the largest government reduction in force since the closure of several military bases several years ago.
Nationwide, the Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers focus on training 16 to 24 year olds, many who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, in areas such as forest firefighting, forestry, and other conservation related fields. Job Corps students are often among those responding to national disasters. In addition to gaining specific trade skills, many of the students receive GED certifications and drivers’ licenses while enrolled in the program.
Locally, the Pine Knot Job Corps Center started out as a Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp in the 1930s. The CCC program ended in the early 1940s at the outset of WWII, and the camp closed. The site reopened when it became a Job Corps Center in 1965. In addition to conservation and firefighting skills, students at the Pine Knot Center are able to receive career training in carpentry, culinary arts, welding, and other vocational areas.
In addition to the center in Pine Knot, other CCC’s targeted for proposed deactivation include sites in Frenchburg, Kentucky, Montana, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Virginia, Washington, North Carolina and Oregon. The center located in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky is one of the sites to remain open under a new contractor.
The Department of Labor states they will continue to maintain at least one Job Corps Center in each state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.