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Kicking Horse Job Corps furloughs employees, cuts student enrollment

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RONAN — Kicking Horse Job Corps has started furloughing employees to meet budget restrictions at the federal level. 

According to the United States Department of Labor, “The Job Corps is a free education and training program that helps young people learn a career, earn a high school diploma or GED, and find and keep a good job. For eligible young people at least 16 years of age that qualify as low-income, Job Corps provides the all-around skills needed to succeed in a career and in life.”

Kicking Horse Job Corps is a federally funded institution on the Flathead Indian Reservation. It is run by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and, according to CSKT Economic Development Coordinator Joseph Dupuis, is forward-funded. This means Kicking Horse’s 2012 fiscal year ends June 30 of this year. 

According to a U.S. Department of Labor spokesperson, Job Corps’ national office estimated that without taking cost-saving steps, the program would exceed its operational budget for 2012 by nearly $61.5 million. In a previous Valley Journal article, Dupuis stressed that Kicking Horse itself is actually well under budget for fiscal year 2012. The problems arose at the national level.

“Job Corps lacked appropriate program monitoring tools and control protocols, including those to sufficiently analyze contractual spending trends,” according to the u.s. Dept. of Labor spokesperson. “In turn, this led to inadequate spending projections for the operations account. Job Corps is conducting an exhaustive review of its current operating costs in order to make changes to ensure that program costs are sustainable in the future.”

This budget shortfall led Job Corps’ national office to issue a stop-work order to all Job Corps Jan. 28, suspending new student enrollment until further notice in “a decision that was not lightly made, but which allows the program and its 125 centers across the country to operate within current appropriated funding levels,” the spokesman said.

Kicking Horse business community liaison Salisha Old Bull said the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes made the decision to start furloughing employees last week. 

“They had projected we would have to maintain staff-student ratios, so the number of staff is dependent on the number of students. Since they’d suspended enrollment Jan. 28, we couldn’t bring any students in, so now the trend is negative,” Old Bull said. 

“The students are leaving because they graduate and it makes our enrollment fall every week. We have to follow a cost savings plan; that’s why people are being furloughed.”

Old Bull added that the tribes had opted to begin the furloughs because the national office “had projected that if we (furlough employees to maintain a positive student-employee ratio) until June 30, they would lift the stop-work order and our student enrollment numbers would increase. It was a better option than laying them off — they’re still employed.”

Old Bull said once the stop-work order is lifted, Kicking Horse can re-offer furloughed employees their positions without going through a hiring process.

“They just come back to the job,” she said. 

Three weeks ago, Dupuis said the center boasted 79 employees. Last week, Old Bull said that number was down to about 50, meaning nearly half the center’s employees had been furloughed. The center usually has space for 224 students. Student numbers have fallen since the stop-work order was issued, and only 149 students are currently enrolled. Golias Horton is a farming technology student at Kicking Horse. He graduates in August and already has a contract to work with the United States Army as an automated logistics specialist in the Reserves. 

“The employability and skills you learn here are really worth a lot in the end,” he said. “More experience and more things to put on a resume.”

This is not the first time Job Corps’ national office has faced hard times. In 2011, the corps was forced to undergo a series of cuts to national television advertising. The corps also eliminated or reduced some contracts and adjusted several center leases. In addition to the budget shortfall, the corps will face sequestration-related cuts up to 5.2 percent. 

“It’s been a really hard time,” Old Bull said. “I don’t have any other words for it — people are really sad about it, and it’s sad to see them leave because they have families and this is their livelihood. It’s just been a really hard time.”

Old Bull added that some employees had already moved on to different jobs, meaning the corps has already lost hard-to-replace experience and expertise.

“The U.S. Department of Labor is committed to improving and strengthening the Job Corps program so that it can continue to help disadvantaged youth find paths to career success,” the spokesman said. “Even now, Job Corps is upholding its commitment to students who have already been enrolled-so that current students can finish their training and obtain any credentials they are seeking. Job Corps also is continuing to enroll what it sees as the most vulnerable young people in our nation-those who are homeless, in the foster care system, or who have run away from their home. Job Corps centers provide valued services for our nation’s young people and change lives in meaningful ways. Our reform efforts will strengthen the program and its ability to operate within projected appropriations in forthcoming program years.”

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