After Kris McGrath graduated from high school, he took a stab at college. It wasn’t a good fit.

He had worked for the Boy Scouts, but it was seasonal — summer and winter only — and it didn’t pay well.

“I enjoy the work, but there’s no future involved in it,” the 19-year-old from Port Orchard said. “So I came here, just looking for something to better my future.”

McGrath is now training at the Fort Simcoe Job Corps west of White Swan, where low-income youths ages 16-24 are taught trade skills to prepare for careers.

It was a Monday morning, and he was behind the wheel of a heavy hauling truck making his way to an empty lot with orange cones. He had two days left to practice maneuvering the bulky truck before he was scheduled to take a driving test in Yakima for his commercial driver’s license, or CDL.

During his first attempt at the test, McGrath said nerves got the best of him while he was doing a parking maneuver in which drivers are allowed 12 adjustments to back from a 90-degree angle into a parking spot. It cost him the test. On this particular day, he backed into the spot after just four adjustments.

“It’s just the nerves,” he said. “This time I know what to expect. I’m not worried. I know I can do it.”

If he passes, he will be certified to enter the heavy truck driver industry — a field that employs roughly 2 million Americans at a median income of $43,000 annually and is expected to grow by 5% through 2028, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

He is among 73 students enrolled at Fort Simcoe to learn a variety of job trades. He became a resident in March and intends to get credentials that would also allow him to drive buses before leaving.

Interest in Fort Simcoe and other job corps programs nationwide ramped up earlier this year when the U.S. Department of Agriculture threatened to close some centers and privatize others. Work by congressional, state and local officials helped thwart those efforts, much to the relief of students.

What’s in a Job Corps?

Fort Simcoe Job Corps is on the Yakama reservation and is one of 24 Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers (CCC) operated by the U.S. Forest Service in rural areas within or near forestlands. The program was launched in the 1960s by Sargent Shriver as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.

It’s part of a larger program of 124 Job Corps sites nationwide aimed at equipping low-income youths with career skills. Nationally, the centers offer a variety of training, drawing students from near or far for particular fields of study.

At Fort Simcoe, students have the opportunity to learn heavy equipment operations or maintenance, carpentry, brick masonry, automotive technology or truck driving, according to Brad Hill, the center’s director. Separately, Hill is a Yakima City Council member.

Residents can study multiple trades, he said, but the maximum stay at the center is two years. Most students spend 12 to 14 months at the site.

In a center report card released in October, the Fort Simcoe center ranked third among all 124 centers for performance outcomes. Performance is based on high school diploma or equivalency completion, career credential completion, and employment and income after exiting the program, Hill said. Students also are required to get a driver’s license before completing the program.

‘ICL brothers’

Every two weeks, new recruits are welcomed to Fort Simcoe. They begin with an Introduction to Career Life (ICL), where they get work clothes, learn about center rules and operations, and meet with an adviser to plan which trades they will observe during a “hands-on” orientation before committing to learning a trade.

Sitting in the back seat of McGrath’s truck, Carlos Ribald, 19, was observing McGrath’s training as part of his hands-on orientation. Earlier that morning, he had driven a truck for the first time — an exhilarating experience he looked forward to telling friends about that night.

For Ribald, the whole program was new. He had moved on campus from Stanwood just two weeks prior. With a rocky family background that had distracted him from his studies, Ribald finished his senior year with just over half the required credits for graduation. He said he sees Job Corps as a second chance. There, he can get high school equivalency, a driver’s license and credentials for a trade within two years.

Ribald said he was one of nine “ICL brothers” — or new kids on campus. Already, he said he felt supported by the small community. The students spend time together in dorms, a recreational building and a cafeteria, in addition to their respective trade shops.

McGrath echoed him.

“Sometimes it gets a little hard to live in such close quarters, but we do have a good sense of community,” McGrath said from the front seat. “We may be in different trades, but we all live together and work together.”

Ribald said the environment so far was inspiring.

“I think my favorite part of it is almost everybody here has … something they had to overcome,” he said. “Everybody here is trying to make something good out of everything they’re doing. I’m just happy. I want to get into doing something good and turn my life around.”

A second chance

Ribald’s goal of finding a better future is a common theme among Fort Simcoe residents.

Brandon Yanez dropped out of high school his sophomore year. His girlfriend had already graduated, and he didn’t see the benefit of completing his degree.

Without a license or degree, the now-21-year-old from Zillah said he struggled to land a job.

“I always applied. They never called back,” he said. “I wasn’t doing much. I wanted to get off my butt.”

Late last year, Yanez and a childhood friend, Adrian Rodriguez, 21, of Toppenish, decided to sign up for Job Corps at Fort Simcoe together.

Before joining Job Corps, Rodriguez stocked produce at a Safeway. But he was concerned about what quality of life that would allow him.

“I knew from friends and family that living on minimum wage is really hard,” Rodriguez said. “I didn’t want that for myself, so I was thinking how could I get a good career. I knew I liked trade work, so I came to Job Corps.”

Last November, the two moved on site. They finished their high school credentials and got their driver’s licenses within six months of being in the program. They are now specializing in carpentry.

Some of the skills they have learned include wall framing, installing siding, setting up scaffolding, safety skills included in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration test, and soft skills such as how to work well with co-workers, they said. In April, they expect to complete the program, join a union and kick off their careers in carpentry.

“It’s a great experience,” Yanez said. “There’s so much that we’ve learned — just so much that we’ve actually gotten into and opportunities that Job Corps gives us.”

Firefighting crews

One opportunity Yanez and Rodriguez experienced was supporting wildfire fighting through Job Corps.

Each year, Fort Simcoe Job Corps trains about 20 students to help fight fires and another 24 or so to serve in a camp crew, said safety officer Jerry Ford. Students meeting development requirements in their Job Corps trade are allowed to enroll in the program. Then, they earn an Incident Qualification Card, otherwise known as a red card, enabling them to fight fires and participate in fire mitigation during the April-to-October wildfire season.

This past season, Yanez worked for a few weeks on a camp crew, preparing tools and meals for firefighters. Rodriguez was on the fire crew for about two months, thinning out forest for controlled burns planned for the fall and responding to seven wildfires throughout the season to help extinguish them. They made about $2,000 and $7,000, respectively, from the wildfire work and gained skills in collaboration, in addition to hands on skills, they said.

When he completes Job Corps, Rodriguez said he plans to buy a car with the money he earned fighting fires — which he’ll be able to drive, now that he’s licensed — making him more employable.

Fires burning

For 20-year-old Matthew Shulman, the opportunity to support firefighters hit close to home. Shulman grew up in Los Angeles, where five wildfires have started nearby in the last week alone, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. One fire that had grown to 200 acres in San Bernardino on Thursday forced 490 homes or about 13,000 people to evacuate.

“Where I’m at, right now it’s always burning,” he said of his hometown.

Shulman left L.A. in July 2018 to get away from trouble and to gain employment skills. He didn’t have a job at the time. The trucking trade caught his attention, and Fort Simcoe was the closest Job Corps center to offer the training, he said.

Shulman has been at the site for little over a year. He recently obtained his commercial driver’s license through the program after earning heavy equipment repair credentials.

But with the destruction back home during wildfire season, he also wanted to learn skills that would help him give back to his community, he said.

“Once I found out they had a fire crew program here, I jumped right on it,” he said. “I’ve been in it ever since.”

He has served on fire crews this wildfire season and last, providing support on fires like the Left Hand Fire near Cliffdell in July, which burned roughly 3,400 acres and caused at least $8 million in damage. When he finishes Job Corps in a matter of weeks, Shulman said he plans to get a short-term job in Washington so he can work on a fire crew one more time next year before returning to California. He intends to continue offering his help on fires there.

Sudden threat

Those firefighting contributions are part of the reason why the Fort Simcoe Job Corps and several others nationwide are open today.

In May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed the closure of nine Job Corps programs and the privatization of 16 others in a cost-saving effort. Fort Simcoe Job Corps was on the chopping block, while the nearby Curlew Job Corps in Ferry County and Columbia Basin Job Corps in Moses Lake would have been privatized.

The proposal sent a shock through the Fort Simcoe center.

For Shulman, the center would have closed before he completed his CDL, making his move so far away from home pointless. He said students were concerned about their future, and several dropped out in anticipation of the proposed closure, he said.

Yanez said the announcement made him feel abandoned by the government.

“It really made me feel like they didn’t have to deal with us,” he said. If the site had closed, he said, he would have returned home to Zillah without trade credentials.

Ruben Orris, the truck driving instructor for the past 15 years, would have been among 10 instructors to lose their jobs, not to mention administration and support staff. Orris considers his time at Fort Simcoe “the most rewarding job I’ve ever had.”

A bipartisan group in Congress fought the closures, pointing to the tremendous need in rural areas for job training and the firefighting support. U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Sunnyside Republican, and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, were among those who signed letters pressing the Department of Agriculture to reverse its decision.

The letter Newhouse signed said students across the CCC campuses had logged 450,000 hours of service in 2017 to support wildfire response.

The state Department of Natural Resources also advocated for the continuation of the CCCs, emphasizing that the program helps train future foresters and firefighters.

“We need to be investing in programs that ensure we have foresters and firefighters in the future, not cutting them,” DNR communications director Carlo Davis said at the time.

In late June, the proposal was reversed.

Changes at Fort Simcoe

Hill, the center’s director, said the closure scare changed the mood at Fort Simcoe.

“I was really concerned that we end on a really positive note,” he said.

The center pushed to graduate students who were close to finishing, trying to get them into the job market as quickly as possible. “I think once the decision was reversed, we just carried on with that mentality,” he said.

Hill said it likely contributed to the site’s recent high ranking.

At the same time, he said, the bipartisan support has brought positive attention to Job Corps.

“People just really started measuring the value of Job Corps and the work we do in America,” he said.

Hill hopes to see more students enroll in the program. In a county like Yakima, which has a poverty rate of over 20%, Hill said a free career technical education would be a good fit for students who don’t know what they want to do after high school or don’t want to go directly to college. The center is at 65% capacity with its 73 residents.

“We could take 40 more students immediately. That’s 40 spots for young people that aren’t being realized,” said Hill. “I think it’s a great resource. … I hope we’re open for decades to come.”

Reach Janelle Retka at jretka@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @janelleretka