By SUSAN ANDERSON Star-Tribune business editor

A longtime dream of Wyoming educators and workforce leaders came closer to reality Wednesday with the announcement that a bid was awarded to build a Job Corps Center in Riverton.

The U.S. Department of Labor gave the $41,303,762 million project to Rafter H Construction of Idaho.

This will be the first Job Corps Center in Wyoming, the last state to get such a center.

When fully operational in 2017 as expected, it will employ about 110 teachers, trainers and staff to provide job and life skill training to at-risk young adults. The program will focus on training in energy production, driving, heavy equipment operation, mechanics, welding and health technologies.

It will be the only Job Corps program in the nation to offer energy-focused job training, according to Sandy Barton, executive director of the Fremont County Board of Cooperative Educational Services. Barton is a former teacher and past member of the state Board of Education who has worked on the Job Corps grant application process since 2005. She said that Job Corps is considered “the nation’s most effective dropout recovery program.”

Barton predicted that Job Corps will be so successful that it will decrease Wyoming’s high school dropout rate and increase high school graduation. And she said, “Our mission is to recognize students and get them into Job Corps before they drop out.”

“The idea is to train them in a job so when they go to work they are off of social services and self-sufficient,” she added.

Riverton Mayor Ron Warpness expects the center will “dramatically change the economic climate in Riverton, as well as the lives of countless young people that will gain the skills and abilities” that will help them secure good jobs.

The center is like a small college campus, including seven buildings that include dormitories, classrooms, a recreation center and a cafeteria.

Riverton used a Wyoming Business Council grant to pay for water and sewer infrastructure for the site, at 4200 Airport Road on Riverton property leased to the Department of Labor.

The program is designed for people between the ages of 16 and 24 described as “at-risk.” It is free for the participants. To be eligible, students must meet low-income guidelines and have “barriers to employment,” such as needing extra career training, education, counseling and help to complete regular schoolwork or to find and keep jobs.

Job Corps enrollees may be school dropouts, runaways or homeless young people.

Political backstory

How did Wyoming get an expensive federal government program in these tight times? It’s a long story involving bipartisanship and persistence from Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.

One day about seven years ago Enzi heard Sen. Tom Harkins, D-Iowa, talking about his state’s need for another Job Corps Center. Enzi convinced his colleague that Wyoming should get its first center before other states got multiple ones, and Harkins took up the cause.

When there was money left in a budget, Harkins exercised his privilege as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to be sure that Wyoming got its Job Corps Center. (His state, Iowa, got its center, too.)

Enzi said that making the case that a center should be placed close to the Wind River Indian Reservation helped convince decision makers that there was great need in Wyoming for job training. He said the Northern Arapaho and Shoshone tribes were crucial partners in the application process.

How Job Corps works

When the Wyoming Job Corps buildings are completed in 2015, the program will phase in gradually, with about 25 students per month coming in. The students can stay two years, with all of their expenses paid. Barton said that the average stay is eight months as the students work on a high school degree or GED while receiving industry training.

When the students graduate and are placed in their jobs, Job Corps provides case managers for up to 18 months. They help the students adjust to working life, assisting them in everything from finding an apartment or a car to locating child care.

A groundbreaking is scheduled for the Riverton campus on Aug. 9. There will be about 100 workers during the construction phase.

Barton said that none of the three bids submitted for the job came from Wyoming; they were from Florida, Oklahoma and Idaho. “We were hoping a Wyoming firm would apply, but we’re glad the contract went to a contractor in the region,” she said.

An artist’s rendering of the future Job Corps Center in Riverton. The U.S. Department of Labor has awarded a bid to construct the job training campus, which should be operating in 2017.