With help from Ron, Pastor Smith connects people with good-paying jobs

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
By: Rick Romell
February 15, 2016

The key link connecting two communities with starkly different but nonetheless intertwined problems is a 13-year-old Chevy van with faded lettering, rusted rocker panels and 168,000 miles on the odometer.

It’s rapidly accumulating more. Three times every day, it pulls away from a small, central city church located in what years ago was a restaurant and tavern, bound for companies in Sheboygan County.

The companies need workers. The people inside the van, all of them African-American Milwaukeeans, need work. The vehicle is the physical expression of an unusual effort that brought them together.

“It’s a good program,” Willie McShan said, sitting in a back pew at Greater Praise Church of God in Christ before catching a ride to his second-shift job at an auto parts plant. “It’s a great program.”

Fifty-three years old, McShan had been with temp services — washing dishes, mopping floors, working the assembly line in a plastics shop — for about $8 an hour.

“At the most, $9,” he said. And without stability.

“It was very irregular,” he said. “You might work this weekend and (then) get a call that says they don’t need you anymore.”

That changed late last year. Since Dec. 7, McShan has been earning nearly $15 an hour at Nemak, which makes aluminum castings for car manufacturers, and more than $22 an hour for overtime, of which there has been plenty.

“I’ve been working for the last 18 days straight,” he said.

Which means by 12:45 p.m. every day he’s at the parking lot at Greater Praise, 5422 W. Center St., and climbing into the van. Sometimes, with the hour ride each way and stops for other workers at other companies, he doesn’t get home til 12:30 a.m.. He said that’s OK.

“Hey, I’ll go two hours,” he said.

McShan is among roughly 35 people who so far have benefited from what its backers have dubbed the Joseph Project. Named after a book by black conservative Robert L. Woodson Sr., the effort has married faith-based community activism to bottom-line corporate necessity, with a bit of political clout helping as matchmaker.

“This is no hook and crook,” said Jerome Smith, pastor of Greater Praise. “This is taking care of business — God’s business.”

It’s helping earthly enterprise too. Sheboygan County has been adding jobs at nearly double the statewide pace, and its current unemployment rate, 3.4%, is among the lowest in Wisconsin. The result, according to Dane Checolinski, director of the Sheboygan County Economic Development Corp., is a labor shortage at many companies.

“We have to look outside of our boundaries for our workforce,” Checolinski said, “and we are actively pursuing and looking for any solutions that we can find.”

That made Sheboygan County receptive when the Joseph Project came calling.

The effort arose out of discussions last spring among black ministers in Milwaukee and Orlando Owens, who at the time was director of African-American engagement for the Republican Party of Wisconsin. Among the ministers’ concerns, not surprisingly, was the dire employment situation among black Milwaukeeans.

Barely half of working-age black men in the metropolitan area, for example, were employed in 2014, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data. That compares to 80% of white men.

All the same, the problem of African-American joblessness is one of long standing, and the ministers’ initial discussions “kind of went to the back burner for a little while,” Smith said.

Then Owens switched jobs. He took a position on the staff of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) and got together once more with Smith.

“We started talking again, and it just exploded,” Smith said.

Owens and another Johnson staffer, Scott Bolstad, sent out feelers to economic development agencies across southeastern Wisconsin to gauge how they felt about partnering with the Milwaukee ministers. Sheboygan County showed the most interest, and Checolinski’s group introduced the ministers at companies such as Kohler and Nemak.

Having Johnson involved almost certainly helped open doors, Smith said.

“I believe some of these companies would not have given us the time of day if we did not have an important person like Sen. Johnson in the mix,” Smith said.

“And let me share with you really quickly,” he said, “’cause I don’t want any assumption: I’m not a Republican. I’m not. (But) one thing I will tell you that dealing with these guys has done for me — it has caused me to realize that I’m more of an issue-driven person than a party-driven person.”

By September, Smith had organized classes to coach job applicants on interviewing, attitude and other soft skills. Within a month, a dozen people had interviewed, and some had job offers. Two other classes followed. About 35 people now are working in the program, Smith said.

“It’s a great opportunity,” said Christopher Kemp, 24, of Milwaukee, who went from a $9.50-an-hour temp job in Glendale to Nemak, where he is making $14.87. “I would suggest anybody who wants a chance at a great job to do it.”

Smith said none of the people who have started jobs at the Sheboygan County firms, along with one company in Grafton, Pace Industries, that is also participating, has walked away from them.

“I’ve had no one quit,” he said.

With the effort growing, Smith last month traded in his own truck for another van, a new one, that’s now also being used to shuttle workers.

“The first van was paid for,” he said. “The second van we’re making car notes on.”

Financing has come from donations and fees. Riders are asked to pay $6 a day after they’ve been on the job for 30 days. That generates about $2,000 a month, Smith said.

At the same time, Greater Praise spends about $3,000 a month to pay drivers, and Smith said monthly expenses exceed fee revenue by $3,300 to $3,400.

With the older van, it “seems like every month there’s something,” he said. “We just replaced the alternator — $373.” Before that it was a battery, for $274.

Seeking to cover the deficit, Greater Praise recently launched a fund-raising campaign on CrowdRise, an online charity platform.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s office is looking for churches in other Wisconsin cities to start similar programs.

Efforts such as the Joseph Project provide benefit by removing “friction” that keeps a market, in this case a labor market, from operating smoothly, said Nicholas Jolly, an assistant professor of economics at Marquette University.

Here, the friction is Milwaukee’s well-known mismatch of having many job-seekers in the city but many of the potential employers located in outlying areas, said economics professor John Heywood, of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

But can the program be sustained financially on a long-term basis?

“I really don’t know,” Smith said. “It’s hard to say. And I’ll tell you why it’s hard to say: We seem, for the most part, right before we need funds, they come right at the last minute.”

There’s also the question of employees spending as much as 12 hours a day between the job and getting back and forth.

“The commute is obviously a very large time commitment and so the issue is whether enough workers will continue to want to make the commute and if the transit program will remain viable,” Heywood said by email. “If the workers continue, and the employment relationship is valuable for employers, one might anticipate some workers would move closer to work.”

People also could “graduate” from the program after saving enough to buy their own cars.

At least some of the workers could have significantly fatter paychecks before long. Nemak, where McShan and Kemp are employed, increases the wages of production workers to $19.04 an hour over 12 months.

Nemak is “excited to be a part of the program,” Tom Bair, human resources manager for the company’s Wisconsin operations, said by email.

Nemak hired seven people and still has six, Bair said. He declined to say why one of the hires is no longer with the firm, but said the retention rate has been very good compared with Nemak’s usual recruitment efforts.

Two of the other four employers involved have had more-limited experience with the program, but both are satisfied.

Polyfab Corp., a plastic injection molder in Sheboygan, hired one person about a month ago.

“She’s doing a good job for us,” said Rick Gill, president and chairman of the company.

Pace hired three people, at $13 to $15 an hour, in early January at its aluminum die casting plant in Grafton, and things have gone very well, human resources manger Joel Kruszka said.

“Attendance is great. Good attitudes. It’s been perfect,” he said.

Kohler Co. did not respond to requests to talk about the program.

For McShan, it’s still early, but he already has considered the possibility of moving to Sheboygan.

In the meantime, he’s glad to be making more money and glad to be on solid ground in a job.

“I’m a part of something,” he said. “I just feel like I can wake up tomorrow, and it’ll be there.”