In Milwaukee, an effort to link inner-city workers with jobs outside the city

Pastor Jerome Smith Sr. runs the Joseph Project, which not only helps urban residents find work but also operates a van service to get them there. The initiative has become a conservative favorite.

Michael McLoone/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
‘If you’re going to change a man’s life, you’re going to need God to do that,’ says Pastor Jerome Smith Sr.

On a gray, drizzly Wednesday morning, a line forms early at the back of Greater Praise Church of God in Christ, a windowless storefront church on Milwaukee’s northwest side. Soon it stretches out the door, and the hiss of tires on wet pavement drifts in among the pews, where the pastor is greeting his visitors.

“Good morning, sir! How are you?” he says. “What’s going on, girl?” A short, stocky man in his mid-40s with a thick neck and close-cropped hair, he shifts easily to pastoral sternness. “Fellas!” he exclaims. “Take your hat off in the sanctuary. Please!”

They have come here on a weekday morning seeking not salvation, but employment. And Pastor Jerome Smith Sr., who would resist such a strict distinction, is eager to help them. For two years he has run a program to connect inner-city workers, mostly African-American men, with jobs outside the city. Called the Joseph Project after the Old Testament figure, it not only helps them find work but also runs a van service to get them there, a trip that for some takes more than an hour.

The Joseph Project is a small effort to address two big problems: high urban unemployment and a growing geographical divide between where the jobless live and where the jobs are. These problems afflict many cities but have grown acute in Milwaukee. A forthcoming study estimates that nearly half of all working-age black men in Milwaukee are jobless. Meanwhile, companies outside the city complain they can’t find enough workers.

“Milwaukee has far more people than it has great-paying jobs, and some of our outskirts have great-paying jobs but don’t have people,” Pastor Smith says. “This was a good match.”

More than 150 people have found jobs through the Joseph Project. They work at large manufacturing and food processing companies in places such as Sheboygan, New Berlin, and Horicon, Wis. They man assembly and packaging lines in plants that make sausages, car parts, and roofing materials. Most work the second and third shifts. From one van a year ago, the transportation fleet has grown to five. Vans leave the church as early as 3:45 a.m. and as late as 9:50 p.m., bound for destinations north and west of the city.

For many people, the trip is worth the trouble. The jobs are mostly entry-level, paying $12 to $18.50 an hour. Smith says that’s better than most work available in Milwaukee, which includes retail and fast-food jobs and short-term work through temp agencies. Plus, the jobs outside the city have benefits that many workers in Milwaukee can only dream of.

“They’re getting 401(k)s,” Smith says. “Some are getting profit sharing. Health care, vision care, dental. Man, it’s unbelievable.”

Every Wednesday morning, Smith opens Greater Praise Church for an orientation. He selects the most promising applicants – he calls them “candidates” – for a week of training in soft skills such as interviewing and financial planning.

This Wednesday’s orientation has attracted an unusually large number: Forty-one candidates line up to fill out applications, then sit for the hourlong orientation. They include Gerry Brumfield Jr., who has come with his father. “This is my opportunity to start something new,” Mr. Brumfield says. In his early 30s, married, and the father of two children, he has worked at a dollar store and for a security company, but is now unemployed. Like many in the Joseph Project, he has a criminal record.

“A lot of people give up or go back to their old way of life,” he says. “I can’t. I can’t give up on myself.”

Smith says the biggest obstacle for candidates is drug testing. Many fail. Also, a lot of companies require a high school diploma or GED certificate, regardless of the work. A criminal record is no bar to employment, he says, but not every company is willing to overlook one.

“It’s a case-by-case basis,” he says. “If you’re honest about what’s happened in the past, and done what you had to do and learned from it, in most cases people can get around that.”

One company’s experience

Johnsonville, which makes sausages and other processed meat, was one of the first companies to join the Joseph Project. Headquartered in Sheboygan Falls, Wis., Johnsonville has struggled to find workers, says Heather Martin, a personnel executive. She says the social and spiritual aims of the Joseph Project appealed to the company.

“Once we understood the program and the power of the program, and the capability of the transportation, Johnsonville was all in,” she says.

The company has hired 14 workers from the Joseph Project. Nine are still working for Johnsonville. Five were dismissed for reasons it would not disclose. Four have been at Johnsonville more than a year. “We’re pleased with that,” Ms. Martin says.

The Joseph Project is part of a much larger effort to help Milwaukeeans find work. Other programs offer longer training, hoping to get workers into better-paying jobs in the trades. Some specialize in “reentry” – helping people coming out of prison. Construction projects that receive aid from the city are required to hire local workers.

But few programs transport workers to jobs beyond the city. One that does is the Milwaukee Careers Cooperative, which started such services in 1988 and uses 14-passenger vans to take about 300 workers to 10 work sites.

“It’s getting worse,” says John Possell, the cooperative’s transportation manager, of the challenges facing inner-city workers. “The big employers – the Amazons, the Ulines, and others – they need the large facilities, and they can’t locate those in the city. And that’s where you’re creating job numbers.”

Unlike other efforts, the Joseph Project is explicitly religious. Participants must promise to attend church – any church – at least twice a month. “If you’re going to change a man’s life, you’re going to need God to do that,” Smith says.

The pastor’s story

Smith knows from experience. He grew up in Chicago, in the Robert Taylor Homes, once the largest public housing project in the United States. When he was 12, his mother moved him and his sister to Milwaukee. He fathered a child, dropped out of high school, and went to work as a dishwasher operator at a pancake house.

He was better at work than school. He started a janitorial company, bought real estate, and became a mortgage broker.

In 1997, during a time of marital distress, he attempted suicide. He says the bullet from his .45 semiautomatic knocked him out and burned his chest, but otherwise left him unharmed.

He was in church the next Sunday. He became a deacon, then a minister. In 2014, he started his own church on a street marked by boarded-up buildings and vacant lots.

“Sometimes he amazes me, considering the background we came from,” says Sean Milan, a cousin who is close to him. “We came from nothing. Our families were born with nothing. We just made do. He was able to get a job and become something.”

The Joseph Project’s roots

The Joseph Project has roots in politics as much as in religion. It grew out of meetings that Orlando Owens, then in charge of African-American outreach for Wisconsin’s Republican Party, held with ministers in the Milwaukee area. The problem of unemployment loomed large, and when Mr. Owens went to work for US Sen. Ron Johnson (R) of Wisconsin, he and other members of Senator Johnson’s staff helped connect Smith with businesses north of Milwaukee.

Johnson and his staff continue to work closely with the project. This connection has helped make the Joseph Project famous in Republican circles. Politicians and conservative writers have extolled it as an example of how local initiatives and not government can overcome poverty and joblessness.

For his part, Smith says he’s not a Republican or Democrat. “I’m an issue-driven individual,” he says. He acknowledges that it would have been difficult to make the Joseph Project work without Johnson’s support: “He kicks open the doors of companies.”

Marc Levine, a labor expert at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says the Joseph Project is a “noble effort” to address the growing mismatch between where the workers are and where the work is. “We should have more voluntary efforts like that,” he says. But he notes that urban unemployment is a big problem with many causes, including segregation and the decline in manufacturing, and that transporting workers outside the city simply isn’t enough to solve the problem. “The notion that you’re going to make a dent in unemployment in Milwaukee by matching people with jobs in Sheboygan is fanciful,” he says.

The Wisconsin Employment Transportation Assistance Program is one source of funding for organizations that try to link up low-income workers with jobs. But the help has been small – the state has contributed less than $1 million annually in recent years – leaving the federal government and local sources to foot most of the bill.

“People have talked about employment transportation being an important issue for at least 10 years,” says Mr. Possell of the Milwaukee Careers Cooperative. “And yet nobody wants to put up the money to solve it.”

Smith admits that the reach of the Joseph Project is limited. “We’re not trying to change the world overnight,” he says. But he hopes to expand. Already he’s helped start a Joseph Project in Madison, Wis. And he’s working with people in other states.

The pastor is friendly but strict. On Wednesdays the church door locks at 10 a.m. “If you can’t get to orientation on time, you won’t get to work on time,” he says. The orientation is about more than imparting information; it’s Smith’s first chance to size up candidates. The mumbling young man in blue jeans, the wiseguy who doesn’t hear instructions – these candidates are unlikely to be invited back.

Dressing the part helps. “Turn around. Look at him, guys,” Smith says of a young man in a jacket and tie and freshly shined shoes. “That’s the way I roll when I’m looking for a job!”

‘It’s worth it’

Later that day, Michael Ewing, age 60, stands outside the church in a hooded jacket and knit cap, waiting for an afternoon ride to Nemak, an auto parts manufacturer in Sheboygan. Before the Joseph Project, he says, he worked through a temp agency at jobs offering low pay and uncertain hours. “It wasn’t stable,” he says.

Now he loads parts on a conveyor for what he describes as “astronomical” pay – about $17 an hour – and “top-of-the-line benefits.” He says the compensation and steady work on Nemak’s second shift more than make up for the hourlong commute from Milwaukee, which comes on top of a 20-minute bus ride to get to the church each day.

“It’s worth it,” he says. “It definitely is.”

He says he’s surprised more people don’t know about the Joseph Project.

“I’d recommend it to anyone looking for work.”

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