The jobs program that Sen. Johnson doesn't talk about

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI)
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) | Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons
A senator in a tough reelection fight and a pastor of a black church have quietly joined forces to train poor Milwaukee residents for job interviews and take them to meet employers. Its a high impact program that has gotten very little attention.

Jerome Smith, pastor of a squat red brick church on Milwaukee’s Center Street, created a community-led employment program focused on helping the African-American community in September 2015. Based at Smith’s Greater Praise Church of God in Christ, the Joseph Project aims to place willing workers from the local community with area manufacturers.

“The idea behind the project is right there in the story of Joseph, the idea of giving people second chances,” Smith said. “Joseph was a 31-year-old inmate shepherd who was given a second chance in life when he became an adviser to Pharaoh.”

While political fights have divided Wisconsin, Smith found a surprising ally in Republican Sen. Ron Johnson. The first-term senator is defending his seat next week against Russ Feingold, whom he defeated in the 2010 election. Johnson and Feingold are in a statistical dead heat, according to a recent Marquette University Law School poll.

Johnson sought no publicity for his involvement in the Joseph Project, preferring to stay in the background and keep the program free for politics. “Senator Johnson has been involved from the beginning with our project,” Smith said. “He made the phone calls and kicked in the doors with a lot of manufacturers. He’d visit with them and get them to work with us.”

Johnson took a break from his re-election campaign to visit the church on an unusually warm November day. There in the low-ceilinged church, he met with the 13 members of Joseph Project’s latest class. No reporters accompanied the senator.

“Johnson gives the project participants validation that important people care about them and their success,” Smith said. “The first two days of the class we teach them time management and improve their resumes to highlight vocational skills. They also practice interacting with employers. We don’t guarantee them anything other than an interview. They have to do the rest.”

“Before I joined the program I was making nine dollars an hour,” said Alvin Salvage, an alumni of the Joseph Project’s training program.“I have been in the workforce for 12 years, and this is the first job I’ve had that paid more than $14 an hour.”

Salvage, who began his training in April and now works as an inspector of automobile parts, will be making double his previous wage within the next few months, he said.

“This job has changed my future,” Salvage said. “I have more money now than before. I’m also working regular hours. I’m thinking about buying a home, saving and maybe starting my own business.”

As a preacher in one of the country’s most troubled cities, Smith has seen the impact of poverty. Only half of the working-age black men in the Milwaukee metropolitan area had jobs in 2014, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. By contrast, more than 80 percent of the city’s white males were employed.

Smith realized that while entry-level black workers in Milwaukee faced limited job prospects, there were manufacturers elsewhere who badly needed workers. But the job seekers and the job makers did not know each other. Smith knew he would need the support of Wisconsin politicians for the program. Only Johnson stepped up to help, the reverend said.

Every time a van full of Joseph Project graduates leaves Milwaukee headed toward Sheboygan, Smith sees it as another small victory in the fight against poverty.

The church uses four minivans to take Joseph Project participants to their jobs, all of which have been donated. Workers pay a nominal fee for the shuttle service on the 56 mile trip between Milwaukee and Sheboygan.

Since the program began last year, 170 people have gone through the five-day program and attended a job interview. Of these, 92 people have found jobs. Another 37 are in the process of completing background checks and drug screening by potential employers at manufacturing plants.

Sheboygan County has the third highest concentration of manufacturers in the United States. The county’s unemployment is 3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a figure well below state and national averages.

“In Sheboygan we had idle machines, and in Milwaukee, there were job seekers,” said Dane Checolinski, the director of the Sheboygan County Economic Development Corporation. “The employers are happy to have employees who are eager to work, and it allows them to expand production and go after larger contracts.”

Some Joseph Project alumni have left Milwaukee and moved to Sheboygan to live closer to their jobs. For others, the roughly hour-long trip serves to foster the sense of community inherent in the program.

“We talk on the drive to the work, and what is great about the Joseph Project is that they don’t just find you a job. They stay committed to you and will talk to your employer if there is an issue that needs to be solved,” said Salvage, who grew up in Milwaukee’s Hillside Terrace housing projects. Some participants, he said, have overcome drug addiction. One man found a job after having been incarcerated for 23 years.

The program’s name is more than an allusion to the Bible. The name draws on the work of Bob Woodson, who founded the Washington-based Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and used the Joseph analogy in his 1998 book The Triumphs of Joseph.

The name also reflects more than just the idea of second chances, Woodson told American Media Institute.

“Inherent in the story of Joseph is the idea that Pharaoh needs something from the people as much as the people need something from Pharaoh,” said Woodson. “When I visited Milwaukee, I talked to people who had gone to prison but thanks to the Joseph Project were now working and had expanded their expectations for life. I was impressed by the simplicity of the Joseph Project and its ability to get results.”

Woodson calls for faith-based approaches to poverty alleviation at the grassroots level, and his work inspired similar projects in New Jersey and Missouri. Smith and Johnson drew inspiration from Woodson’s book when they were crafting the Joseph Project.

“It’s a good book, inspired by the good book,” Smith said.

Though Sheboygan county was the initial focus of the effort, the Joseph Project has also sought to develop partnerships with other communities in Wisconsin that have similar labor shortages.

“The Joseph Project is one of the best developments we have seen in Sheboygan’s business sector in the past two years,” Checolinski said. “Look, immigrants built this country. By that I mean it was made by people looking for second chances.”

The program’s success has allowed it to spread by word of mouth.

“My own pastor told me to reach out to Pastor Smith because he knew about the project,” Salvage said. “Later I got my sister in the project, and my cousin just texted me a thank you note. He has just started the five-day training.”

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U.S. Senator Ron Johnson 517 East Wisconsin Avenue Milwaukee, WI - 53202

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