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Northwoods Job Center Spared After Trump Administration Reverses Course

The Blackwell Job Corps Center In Laona Trains Disadvantaged Youth In Trades

The Blackwell Job Corps Center
The Blackwell Job Corps Center in Laona trains disadvantaged youth ages 16 to 24 in trades including carpentry, masonry and health professions. Rob Mentzer/WPR

A federal job center in the Northwoods will stay open after the Trump administration on Wednesday evening announced it would reverse course on plans to close or privatize more than 100 centers across the country.

The Blackwell Job Corps Center has trained disadvantaged young people for jobs since 1964. The center, which takes students ages 16 to 24, provides job training and certifications in trades such as carpentry, masonry and health professions.

In May, the U.S. Department of Labor named Blackwell as one of nine centers it would close down, amid plans to hand over the rest of the centers to private contractors.

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But in a reversal reported by Politico, the Washington Post and other outlets, the U.S. Department of Labor announced it would no longer proceed with the closures.

The closure would have meant more than 50 lost jobs at the Forest County site, situated on the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. The center’s 70 or so students would have been forced to transfer to other job sites.

Jaqueline Hernandez, 22, of Milwaukee is a student in the center’s certified nursing assistant program. She said the planned closure of the center had left her without a clear idea of where she would end up. Learning that she can continue her studies at Blackwell, was welcome news.

“I feel back on track,” Hernandez said.

Kristi Caudel of the National Federation of Federal Employees, the union that represents Blackwell workers, said the news has come as a relief to those involved in the center.

“Everyone is excited,” Caudel told WPR Thursday. “The students are very excited. It’s a big relief to them not to have to leave their home to go someplace else, and to be able to finish what they started here.”

Earlier this week, Caudel said the centers, which are run by the U.S. Forest Service, are a cost-effective method of providing training. She cited federal data showing that the job centers targeted for closure spent on average less than $40,000 per student, compared to close to $50,000 per student for programs operated by the Department of Labor.

A spokeswoman from the Department of Labor declined to comment on Thursday.

The closure plans were met with bipartisan pushback in Congress. Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin introduced legislation that would have blocked the centers from closing during the current federal budget cycle. Republican U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, whose district includes Laona, spoke out against the proposal.

“My staff and I have been working aggressively with the White House and (the Department of Labor) ever since the announcement was made,” Duffy said Thursday in a statement to WPR. “I made sure they understood how important the Blackwell center is to disadvantaged students in Laona. This wasn’t something that could wait for a legislative fix and I couldn’t be more delighted that they reversed course.”

Baldwin in a Thursday statement said she was, “proud to have worked to win this fight for our Northwoods.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson didn’t issue public statements on the planned closures. On Thursday, a spokesman told WPR that Johnson supports the administration’s decision to reverse course.

Mark Ferris is the director of the Forest County Economic Development Partnership. He said the saved jobs and the center’s $5.2 million budget would be felt in the local economy. He also said the process has served as an education for members of the public about the impact and the value of Blackwell in Forest County.

“One of the things I think is most significant,” Ferris said, “is that this is a center that provides skilled trade training. If you look at our workforce needs, that’s one of the greatest needs we have.”

Dominique Doane is a student in Blackwell’s medical program, studying to be a certified nursing assistant. She’s from Madison, and has been at Blackwell since early 2018, studying for a high school equivalency diploma and her CNA certification.

“I love this program,” Doane said in a Monday interview at the center. “It’s changed my life extremely, in different ways. It’s a learning experience and it’s a place to make yourself better.”