Job Corps looks to future as new leadership arrivesSep 12, 2017 By Daniel Bendtsen, Staff Writer
As a new leadership team takes over at the Wind River Job Corps, staff members are hoping the center's high turnover, which has been a continuing disruption since the facility opened in 2015, will begin to dissipate.
"I think we finally have a good team here," said outgoing director Julie Gassner, who noted that she didn't expect such a high level of turnover when she took the job two years ago.
She's learned that a common characteristic makes employees effective at the center: They need to be "passionate about seeing a student succeed."
Gassner is leaving Monday to take a new position at Management and Training Corporation, the Wind River Job Corps's parent company.
Issa Arnita, director of corporate communications for MTC, said in a Friday email that some of the turnover the center has experienced isn't unusual as the new facility works through its growing pains.
"When you start a new center, some turnover is expected," he said.
As director Jim Whitmire takes over, she said, the new management team "will assess all areas of the center and work with staff to continue to make Wind River a great place for young people to get job training."
Gassner said the first years of a Job Corps program can be surprisingly arduous, as a center's operations can get bogged down by issues as mundane as ordering supplies and making sure all needed tools are available.
"Not every center director gets to start a center from scratch," she said. "Hiring people that have no Job Corps experience, ... getting people trained on how to perform their duties and getting them to understand the policy requirements and the performance expectations - that process is not fast for anyone, even a seasoned center director."
In addition, the center has filled its halls predominantly with staff members from Fremont County, and Gassner said it was a challenge to find long-term employees from the local community.
One other issue Gassner didn't expect was the difficulty she faced in reaching the center's capacity of 300 students after it opened in the summer of 2015.
She originally expected to hit capacity by January 2016, but that target date has been continually pushed further into the future since then.
Since mid-2016, enrollment has continued to hover at around 200 students, and this past week, it sat at only 177.
Recruitment in Wyoming has been done by a third party contractor, CHP International, while MCT has handled out-of-state students.
Originally, Gassner said it was difficult to keep the center stocked with new students, because all of Wyoming's recruitment efforts were shared between only two recruiters: Orion Morris in Riverton and Vicki Grant in Casper.
Both have performed exceptionally, Gassner said, but she believes more recruitment is needed than two people can handle.
After an expansion of efforts in recent months, CHP has received more funding to hire and train admissions counselors. The contractor now has four recruiters in Wyoming, with one based out of Rock Springs and one working out of Cheyenne.
Gassner said she believes the recruiters will now bring in more students.
Recruitment efforts also will be aided by the more than 100 students the center has graduated. Gassner said those graduates can now go back home and sell the program.
"Graduates are always your best marketing tool," she said.
Regardless of whether all students are vocal advocates for the program, having a growing base of alumni scattered throughout the state will bring more awareness to the existence of the Wind River Job Corps.
"That's only going to help to get the word out more," she said.
Rules made more strict last year by the U.S. Department of Labor have also hindered attempts to get the Wind River campus enrollment to capacity.
The new rules are particularly strict on alcohol: If students are found drinking alcohol on campus once, they're most likely kicked out.
Previously, it took two on-campus drinking infractions to be automatically removed from the program.
Students can also be removed from the center if they're caught twice coming back to the center with alcohol in their system.
Before, students violating drug policies could be considered for retainment after they completed a multi-day intervention period, but that option is no longer available.
The rigidity has been divisive among staff members on campus. While some staff members have been frustrated to see some students terminated, Gassner said it's important to provide the students with the "structure and guidance they crave."
"We need to be strong role models and hold those students accountable -- that's not everyone's gift," Gassner said.
The first years of the center have brought plenty of proud moments.
Since the beginning, the center has consistently placed its students in good jobs -- with high wages -- much more effectively than most Job Corps centers across the county do.
Out of 124 centers in the country, Wind River was ranked at No. 2 in "graduate placement ranking" and "graduate average wage ranking" in the scorecards created by the Department of Labor for the last fiscal year.
However, the center's overall performance hasn't been as positive, with DOL ranking Wind River 117 overall. In the combined scored for academic achievement -- which measures the rate at which students earn credentials and high school diplomas or the equivalent -- Wind River Job Corps ranked last.
The center's performance has greatly improved over the last year, however: In its monthly report for July, the center was ranked 44th overall.
Its academic scores continue to dwindle near the bottom of the pack, while the July numbers for job placement and rankings continue to be near the top.