The Job Corps and the U.S. Forest Service were never a good fit, though both organizations tried mightily to make the best of a tough situation.
Job Corps was a creature of the Kennedy era and loosely modeled on FDR’s New Deal, Civilian Conservation Corps. It might have worked if Job Corps had kept the brand and focus of the CCC, but they didn’t in keeping with Kennedy’s broader view. Instead of an emphasis on conservation work, Job Corps taught trades to mostly inner-city kids who had no outdoor experience. In later years, we tried to form fire crews and camp crews but with little overall success.
The Forest Service's attempted to merge the agency’s natural resources management ethos with the corps. We spent 50 years trying to develop training cadres and facilities to that end but there was never a path forward for graduates or staff.
Yes, the staff were Forest Service employees. No, the staff did not follow careers that transitioned easily to agency leadership. The missions were too different. And there was no plan or authority to move kids trained by Job Corps into agency jobs, even seasonal jobs and temporary jobs. Without the ability to cross-pollinate, there was no natural affinity for either organization, and no way to build any empathy or sympathy for each other.
A couple of times each year, our forest staff would hold two-day meetings at Box Elder Job Corps near Nemo. It was fun and pleasant. The Job Corps staff would showcase their facilities, their dining hall, the student dorms, and individual and group student achievements.
But there was no way to reach in and take those trained graduates out of Job Corps and integrate them into the Forest Service. There was no authority to do so. The skills areas were not a good match. That any Job Corps graduates worked full time for the Forest Service at all was usually a triumph of agency human resources personnel and line officers finding workarounds to beat the system. It was frustrating and self-defeating.
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Leaders and staff officers who joined Job Corps were equally frustrated by the imperfect union. Sure, the Forest Service accepted and even encouraged Job Corps personnel in agency positions, from leadership to staff officers. Many of them did well enough. Most were not viewed as completely legitimate by the wider agency and suffered as a result.
The skepticism most agency people felt for Job Corps crossovers was not unjustified. The work rules, hiring and firing authorities, work cultures, and other key areas of work life could not have been more different.
We all wore the green uniform and the shield, but Job Corps wore the uniform only when interacting with the Forest Service. Their staffers were great journeymen welders, bricklayers, and computer programmers. The Forest Service was a band of firefighters, foresters, scientists, and outdoors enthusiasts. We were never able to marry the two groups except in artificial and imperfect ways.
Forests like the Black Hills that had a Job Corps center inside the forest boundaries were better off than most and felt the frustration more deeply. We were so close in distance, in time, and in fact, and so unable to interact in any meaningful way.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue did not come up with the idea to get a divorce by himself. Agency leadership saw an opportunity to divest itself of the Job Corps and took it. It may have happened on President Trump’s watch, but it was engineered by the Forest Service and broadly welcomed by Forest Service rank and file.