Two Job Corps centers in the Mountain Empire — including one that recently completed some much-needed work on a Coeburn, Virginia, caboose — will continue to operate under the umbrella of the U.S. Forest Service after a sudden about-face by the federal government following weeks of growing opposition across the country.
The U.S Department of Agriculture, which includes the U.S. Forest Service, said Wednesday it will not transfer the Job Corps from its umbrella.
On May 24, the Labor Department announced that the Forest Service was transferring the Job Corps program, including Flatwoods in Southwest Virginia and Jacobs Creek in Northeast Tennessee, to the Labor Department.
Established in 1964, the mission of the Job Corps program is to train young adults, ages 16 to 24, with educational, social and vocational skills while assisting in the conservation of the nation’s limited public resources.
In May, the Forest Service said it was dropping the Job Corps from its portfolio to better protect the nation’s natural resources.
In the Mountain Empire, the Job Corps operates the Flatwoods center in Coeburn, where it can enroll 180 people, and the Jacobs Creek center in Bristol, Tennessee, where it can enroll 170 people.
If the Forest Service had gone through with its plans, the Labor Department said it would close Flatwoods and eight other centers across the country. The Labor Department said it also planned to change operations at 16 centers, including Jacobs Creek.
Virginia’s two U.S. senators, both Democrats, said the changes would result in the loss of 1,100 employees, but it’s not known how many would have been affected locally.
Opposition to the May announcement was swift. Shortly after, the Coeburn Town Council passed a resolution opposing the plan, saying that it would devastate the region.
“The Flatwoods Job Corps Center is a vital part of the community, not only for the economic impact that the center has on the community in the form of jobs and support services, but also for the role the center plays in community services provided to Coeburn and the region as a whole,” Coeburn Mayor Jeff Kiser said Friday.
Through the center’s training programs in various trades, Flatwoods does community service work for many of the region’s towns and civic organizations.
“This work, while providing training to the students, is a cost savings to the towns and organizations they do work for,” Kiser said.
Within the past two weeks, a group of Flatwoods enrollees installed security lighting for the historic Norfolk & Western Railroad caboose in Ringley Park in downtown Coeburn. Kiser said the group also installed and repaired the lighting for the downtown foot bridges.
Flatwoods enrollees have worked on projects across the country, from an historic cabin in Colorado to hurricane relief in Louisiana.
Back in 2005, Flatwoods participants traveled to the Gulf Coast to assist in the evacuation and transportation of residents in New Orleans as the region coped with Hurricane Katrina, according to former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao.
“A lot of very hard work has gone in to keeping the center open,” Kiser said.
The mayor said local residents responded to the closing announcement by calling and writing letters to government leaders.
“It’s remarkable what a community can do when everyone bands together for a common goal that benefits the whole community,” Kiser said.
U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, Democrats from Virginia, and U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, led efforts at the federal level, sending letters to Job Corps officials about the importance of Flatwoods and filing legislation in hopes of protecting the site.
Although the Job Corps is a federal program, Virginia Del. Todd Pillion said he traveled to Washington, D.C., recently to meet with Tom Deuschle, the head of the Job Corps, to talk about Flatwoods.
“I appreciate the administration’s willingness to listen and engage about our concerns,” said Pillion, who also toured Flatwoods on Friday. “This was a great team effort by local, state and federal officials and most importantly, members of the local community.”
Wise County Circuit Court Clerk Jack Kennedy also got involved in fighting for Flatwoods, according to Kiser.
“The continuing training and forest protection is an important asset to Wise County and the region as a whole,” Kennedy said Friday. “I am very pleased 51 U.S. senators collectively pushed back against the Trump administration’s executive order to close the Flatwoods Job Corps.”
Kennedy said he was also pleased with the united congressional delegation from Virginia.
“Citizens need to know what triggered the administration to close the Job Corps program, leaving our forest vulnerable to wildfires and trail flood damage,” Kennedy said. “Communities would have been left to mitigate such potential damage and destruction.”
In Tennessee, U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Johnson City, spoke about the importance of the Job Corps and Jacobs Creek, which is in his district.
“I think USDA is making the right choice,” Roe said. “I have personally seen the great work that Jobs Corps does in our community at Jacobs Creek CCC in Bristol, Tennessee, and I was very concerned that plans to transfer this program to a third-party contractor would jeopardize the positive impact being made in the lives of program participants.”
On June 13, Roe and Griffith voted in support of an amendment to the Labor Department’s appropriations bill that would have prohibited the use of any funds to alter or terminate the interagency agreement between the DOL and USDA and prevent the Job Corps’ closure.
Coeburn Vice Mayor Sharon Still said Friday that she had the pleasure of meeting two young future electricians from Flatwoods. One was planning to graduate soon, and the other would have had to transfer from the site.
“She was really wanting to stay here,” Still said. “She is from Massachusetts and has enjoyed being in Coeburn. With the reversal, I really hope that more young people who are in need of a trade and education will return here.”
Closing the site would have been “another blow to our area,” she added.
It’s not known exactly why the federal government planned to close Flatwoods, but Pillion said he was told by Deuschle there were concerns about student outcomes. Pillion noted, however, that in the past Flatwoods has been considered one of the best centers in the country.
In 2018, the Office of Inspector General at the Labor Department released a report stating that the Job Corps could not demonstrate beneficial job training outcomes. The OIG reviewed a sample of participants from 18 centers, including Flatwoods.
The Bristol Herald Courier has sought documentation on student outcomes at the Job Corps but did not receive any response from the USDA by late Friday.
The director of Flatwoods declined comment and referred questions to the USDA’s press office.