GOLCONDA — Over the years, thousands of at-risk youth, most from Chicago, have come and gone through the Golconda Job Corps program in deep Southern Illinois. They have contributed to upkeep of the Shawnee National Forest, assisted with community projects around the region and responded to natural disasters far and wide while earning a high school equivalency diploma and/or technical job training.
Employees are hoping the center in rural Pope County hasn’t reached the end of the line.
Though the Department of Labor has proposed shuttering the Golconda Job Corps and recently transitioned the remaining students to other centers, the leader of the union representing site staff said employees are “continuing on as if we’re going to receive students” in the near future.
Brooks Hayden, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees Local 1840, which represents workers at four Job Corps sites, including the one in Golconda, said the 40 remaining Forest Service employees — a mix of teachers, trade instructors, counselors, residential and office staff — are hopeful that the DOL will have a change of heart.
While there is still uncertainty about the future of the decades-old program in Pope County, employees are continuing on as if the department will restart enrolling students here any day, he said.
“We’re going to work it like we’re going to open up tomorrow, whether we do or not,” he said. Hayden said the center is taking advantage of the time without students to improve its programs and policies.
In a letter this summer, DOL’s Office of Job Corps director outlined student behavioral issues, management concerns and low graduation rates in explaining the agency’s decision to temporarily close the center and transfer students.
Shortly after that, DOL proposed permanently closing the center, which prompted a public comment period on the Federal Register. About 150 people wrote to the department in September and October, most of them pleading with the government to keep the center open.
Hayden said DOL has unfairly portrayed the Golconda site as unsafe and unsuccessful at graduating students, through either a miscommunication of data from site staff to DOL, or intentional manipulation of it to justify the department’s closure decision.
He said it’s frustrating that the department has not been more forthright about the reasons it has chosen to close the Golconda site. DOL spokesman Egan Reich, after providing the above referenced letter to the newspaper discussing concerns with the Golconda center, declined to answer additional questions about how the site’s issues cited by DOL stacked up against others, and what DOL’s long-term plans are for Job Corps centers nationwide.
The DOL Office of Inspector General, in reports in 2015 and 2017, and the Government Accountability Office, in a 2017 report, raised serious concerns about the safety and learning environments for students enrolled in these programs. The reviews took a nationwide look at serious behavioral incidents; none made special mention of any incidents at the Golconda center.
If it is the DOL’s intention to downsize Job Corps, particularly those managed by the Forest Service, Hayden said DOL needs to be honest about that — not just close the Golconda site and blame it on poor management when employees have given so much to make improvements over the years.
Hayden said incidents at Golconda’s site are not nearly as severe as some that have been documented elsewhere. Incidents have occurred there, he conceded, but said that’s the nature of a program that aims to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who have struggled in school or to find their way in early adulthood turn their lives around.
“The Golconda Job Corps staff have, on a daily basis, made a difference in the lives of those students whom come from varied backgrounds and are in need of opportunity,” Hayden said. “The staff care for these young people as their own and work with them to instill good habits, social skills, trade skills and educate them to become productive members of our society. These young people become tax payers and go on to live wonderful meaningful lives.
“The Golconda Civilian Conservation Center and its staff take great pride in the work they have performed over many years and look forward to continuing completing local projects as well as being first responders in fire-related incidents as well as other disasters.”
For the surrounding area, the loss of jobs resulting from the center’s closure also is a major concern.
Alene Carr, executive director of the Southerneastern Illinois Regional Planning and Development Commission, which covers the counties of Pope, Hardin, Gallatin, Saline and Hamilton, said that both Pope County, where the center is located, and neighboring Hardin County, “are extremely desperate to keep the jobs that they have.”
“To lose another facility like that is another devastating blow to the economy down here,” she said.
In late 2015, Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration shuttered the nearby Hardin County Work Camp and numerous mineral extraction companies have closed or downsized over the years. Closures almost always have a domino effect, she said. For instance, the Hardin County General Hospital in Rosiclare served the medical needs of the Job Corps students in Golconda, so the hospital also takes a financial hit from the center’s closure, she said.
Carr said that even if DOL does go through with its closure plans, she hopes that another purpose can be found for the campus. According to Reich, the property is owned by the Forest Service. Attempts to reach spokespeople for the USDA or Forest Service on this topic have been unsuccessful.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth addressed this economic concern related to the Job Corps closure in a letter to DOL Secretary Alexander Acosta dated Nov. 7. She urged the agency to “commit to providing additional resources to Illinois in light of DOL’s proposal to close the Golconda Job Corps Civilian conservation Center.
“I agree the incidents that occurred at the center are serious and must be addressed,” she wrote in the letter. “At the same time, I am deeply concerned about the economic impact that closing Golconda will have on the community in Pope County, which is already struggling to attract economic development opportunities.
“Since 1965, Job Corps’ presence in the region has helped to boost economic activity and the center has formed significant partnerships throughout the community. I urge DOL to provide support by extending additional job training and workforce development programs to Illinois’ southern region.”