In a warehouse on Milwaukee’s north side, men with drills and screwdrivers stand at a long table, picking apart the carcasses of old computers and sorting their components into boxes for recycling.
Across the cavernous room, past a wall of metal shelving, others scan books and CDs, DVDs and video games into computers. They upload their descriptions onto Amazon.com and ship them out to online buyers around the world.
The men are employees of Milwaukee Working, a fledgling faith-based nonprofit aimed at creating jobs in the heart of one of the most impoverished cities in America.
Housed in a former ice-cream factory near W. North Ave. and N. 30th St., its four start-up ventures employ about 15 workers, most of whom have spent time in prison or on the streets and had never held full-time jobs before.
“This is a resurrection story – not just of a building, but of people’s lives,” said the Rev. Mike Murphy, an associate pastor at Elmbrook Church in Brookfield and one of Milwaukee Working’s founders.
The business is an offshoot of Community Warehouse Inc., an 11-year-old nonprofit that sells donated home-improvement materials at discounted prices to residents and contractors fixing up properties in low-income areas.
The new enterprise is located in a 60,000-square-foot building bought out of foreclosure for just $100, as part of a larger package deal.
It launched last year with $400,000 in donations, much of that from major funders, including the Bader, Bradley, Zilber and Greater Milwaukee foundations. And today it employs workers in four areas: recycling (computer components and industrial batteries at the moment), online book sales, light assembly and woodworking.
Some of the workers were referred by Milwaukee police officers and parole agents. They usually start through one of the local transitional jobs initiatives – government-funded programs that pay workers’ salaries while they get on-the-job training, said Chief Operating Officer of Milwaukee Working Bob Wulf. If they do well and there’s work available, they come on full-time.
Salaries range from $9 to almost $15 an hour.
“Our goal is to help them with a job that earns a living wage and benefits,” Wulf said. “We’re not there yet, but that’s the goal.”