Coming to ThriveOn King, JobsWork MKE takes comprehensive approach to employment

By: Staff on Aug 1, 2023

Four years ago, LaToya Crain walked into JobsWork MKE and changed her life.

At 16, Crain, a Milwaukee native, struck out on her own, determined to make it big in the world. After years of struggling to find a good paying job and falling in with the wrong crowd, Crain reached a crossroads. She went to JobsWork MKE, which six months earlier had told her to reapply, determined to try and succeed.

“Coming here, I had that hope, but I was still in between,” Crain said. “I was still in that stubborn mind because there were certain positions I had been used to working that I didn’t want to go back to. But when I did get the job and allowed them to help…it’s the best decision that I could have made.” 

JobsWork MKE is a workforce development program that helps adults overcome barriers to gainful employment. The organization is currently located at 2821 Vel R. Phillips Ave., but come 2024, it will be relocating to the ThriveOn King building, 2153 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive., as a tenant partner along with Malaika Early Learning Center and Versiti. 

ThriveOn King is part of the ThriveOn Collaboration, a partnership between the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, Medical College of Wisconsin and Royal Capital.

“It’s an honor,” Michael Adams, president of JobsWork MKE, said. “We haven’t even moved in, and we are partnering with Malaika, we are partnering with Versiti and we’re working on some stuff with MCW. It’s an exciting time. It’s an opportunity to be in a space that’s really going to support the community and the community can be there while we’re doing the work.” 

Kathryn Dunn, senior vice president and chief strategy officer at the Foundation, said the idea to include JobsWork came from the ThriveOn Collaboration visioning sessions. 

“It’s really in direct response to what we heard from our neighbors and what they wanted and what they felt others in the community needed,” Dunn said. “We kept hearing from people that we needed some support for folks navigating those barriers to employment…JobsWork, which has been around for quite a while, has a really unique approach.”

She noted that JobsWork’s mission aligns with the Foundation and ThriveOn Collaboration’s commitment to enhance equitable economic opportunity. This strategy focuses on supporting small businesses and increasing participation in the workforce.     

Employment matters, but the employee matters more

Unlike other job programs, JobsWork does more than just connect individuals to jobs. 

“I think what sets us apart is the work we do and how we approach it. We want to help people know who they are and understand that they matter,” Adams said. “We are their advocate. We know that it’s not just about a job, it’s about them, their life. Employment is important, but it’s not the only thing that matters to us.”

Upon joining JobsWork, each Member participates in a two-week career readiness workshop where they practice mock interviews, learn tips for being a successful employee and how to deal with trauma. Following the workshop, Members are assessed and given a custom employment development plan. 

After completing the workshop, JobsWork connects individuals to its employer partners such as Froedtert, Encore Cleaning Systems, Quad Graphics, Marquette University and more. 

Once an individual finds employment, JobsWork remains a constant in their life. It helps them with financial planning, job advancement, spiritual support, barriers and more. 

“I’ve had my back pushed against the wall, and they’ve reached out and got information,” Crain said. “They’ve been very helpful as far as helping with maneuvering around certain things. They’ve really been here for me whenever I really needed them.” 

As Adams put it, “We’re in your life until you decide you don’t want to us be or until you decide that this is it – there’s no more work that needs to be done and you’re good.”

JobsWork is able to maintain long-term relationships with Members in part due to the funding the nonprofit receives. The Foundation and its donors have been longtime supporters, providing over $1.2 million in grants since 2015.

“JobsWork can stay with an individual and continue to support them, whether it’s a different employment opportunity or some additional skill building or just moral support because of the way it’s funded,” Dunn said. “A lot of publicly funded programs can’t because they’re only funded up until they get the person the job.” 

Building trust to tackle trauma

Addressing trauma is an instrumental part of JobsWork’s approach. 

When the organization began about 10 years ago, Adams and Bill Krugler, JobsWork’s founding president and now board chair, realized that it wasn’t about finding Members jobs, but helping them keep them, as many of their Members were impacted by decades of trauma. 

In response, JobsWork collaborated with Dr. Mark Fossie of WestCare Wisconsin, Tim Grove of Wellpoint Care Network and professor James “Dimitri” Topitzes of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to provide tools to Members dealing with trauma so they could learn to identify the problem, self-regulate and eventually, heal.

Some Members meet one-on-one with Fossie, but all are welcome to attend the Circles of Support, where they talk about what’s going on in their lives. 

“It takes incremental things to build trust,” Adams said. “We’re continually building trust by answering the phone, by hearing a person and meeting them where they are. We talk about where grace and accountability intersect. Sometimes we have to tough love it, but it’s always with a big spoonful of love. That’s how we build trust, it’s no real big secret, it’s just incrementally doing what you say you’re going to do.”  

JobsWork’s team receives similar training to work through the vicarious trauma as well as their own trauma.

And like it does with its Members, JobsWork takes it one step further and works with employers too, helping them recognize when an employee is experiencing trauma and the role they play. 

For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, buses limited the number of riders, which caused people to be late to work and risk penalization.

“The employers hadn’t adjusted yet, so people were being charged for being late,” Adams said. “So, we had to help employers understand and that was a really good thing because we opened a lot of employers’ eyes about how to best treat someone in those times.”   

Success is relative

At JobsWork, success looks different for everyone and isn’t limited to one single thing. For some, it’s finding employment and earning promotions, for others it’s overcoming addiction, affording a place to live and so on. 

“People think that when life happens you just get up and keep walking. Sometimes when you fall, it takes a decade plus to get back on your feet,” Adams said. 

As for Crain, she’s working as housekeeper for Froedtert Hospitals, living in her own space, rebuilding her relationship with God and most importantly, she’s healing. 

“It turned out to be a really good program,” Crain said. “It made me want to come every day, just to get more information on how I can make myself better. I learned a lot and I’m still learning.”