SOUTH WEBER — The Trump administration is switching Weber Basin Job Corps Center to contract management, a move encountering intense opposition from the employees union and skepticism from Utah Rep. Rob Bishop.
The Weber Basin site is one of 16 centers operated by the U.S. Forest Service tapped to be transferred to Department of Labor control and let out to contract management, the department said in an announcement Friday.
Weber Basin has about 160 at-risk students, who are taught vocational trades. The center also is a trainer for wildland firefighters.
Nine other centers will be closed. The moves are expected to be carried out by September.
The move does not affect the Clearfield Job Corps Center, which already is run by the department through a contract with Centerville-based Management and Training Corp.
The change follows a review of the Forest Service centers that the Labor Department said found deficient performance in outcomes, costs and internal controls.
“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 announcement said.
But union representatives are attacking the proposal by disputing the study results and arguing it will harm the at-risk students served by the South Weber center and others like it.
The federal Agriculture and Labor secretaries “conspired to bypass congressional authority” by unilaterally closing and changing the centers, said Walter Johnston, American Federation of Government Employees Union Local 3284 vice president.
Local 3284 includes workers in South Weber.
Johnston said the “underhanded sidestep” is being appealed at the department level and also with members of Congress, including Bishop and Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney.
Andy Villalpando served with the Air Force in Vietnam and Iraq and retired from the Air Force in 1991 with the rank of technical sergeant. He’s been with the Weber Basin center ever since, and he’s president of the union local.
Villalpando and Johnston disputed allegations of subpar performance, pointing to Weber Basin’s most recent audit.
That 2018 document, available on the Job Corps national website, shows Weber Basin received a 96.6 percent performance rating. The Clearfield center rated at 96.8. Both marks were among the highest in Job Corps Region 4, based in Dallas.
“In my opinion, the contract centers have more costs than we do,” Villalpando said. “We do a lot more with less funding.”
Budget comparisons are difficult to make because contractors enjoy confidentiality for claimed trade secrets. For instance, the Labor Department granted a Standard-Examiner request for an audit of the Clearfield Jobs Corps Center last year but deleted all financial information from the document.
Bishop said he and other lawmakers would send a letter to administration officials urging a slowdown on the management changes and closures.
“I have some skepticism as to the data that was used,” Bishop said in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon. “These types of issues have come up repeatedly with Job Corps and oftentimes the data is skewed and has flaws in it.”
Bishop said he’s been a fan of Job Corps since the 1970s when he was in college and met some students from the training program.
“I became friendly with them and was really impressed with what they did there,” he said.
Bishop said the Weber Basin and Clearfield centers have proven themselves as major community successes.
“If there is going to be a change in management, the administration has got to prove there is a huge benefit,” he said. “So far I don’t think that bar has been met.”
MEMORIAL DAY ‘SLAP’ AGAINST VETERANS
Villalpando said he viewed the Labor Department’s announcement at the start of the Memorial Day weekend as a slap at veterans. Many Job Corps instructors are veterans, he said, and some will lose their jobs with this move.
Villalpando, 68, said he has seen many of his students learn maintenance trade skills including proficiency in plumbing and heating and cooling systems. Some have gone on to college after getting on their feet with a trade, he said.
He said he expects that the center’s workers, now paid on the federal scale, would be paid less under a private contractor.
Villalpando said he does not want to retire and would consider staying on if the new bosses offered him a place.
“We need to help these people,” Villalpando said of his students.