Aug 22, 2018

MadREP Supports Ground-Breaking Rural Transportation Initiative

Transportation across long distances is a common challenge in most rural counties in the US. The issue acutely impacts the agriculture, food processing and light manufacturing industries that depend on lower-skilled workers, many of whom lack access to a vehicle or do not have a driver’s license. The challenge cuts both ways: without transportation, employers have difficulty filling job vacancies and endure high rates of absenteeism while residents who want to work lose the opportunity to earn additional income. Supported by MadREP and led by Paul Scharfman, President of Specialty Cheese Company (SCC) in Reeseville, a public/private consortium in Dodge County is now tackling this challenge head-on.

“Paul and I first connected on this issue nearly two years ago,” said Gene Dalhoff, MadREP V.P. of Talent & Education. “He was looking for ways to fill open positions at his company and was convinced there were individuals in Dodge County who would be available for work if they had a reliable means of transportation. Others were added to the discussion, and soon there was a Dodge county- based team exploring options and solutions.”

The consortium came to include a number of employers, nonprofits, government agencies and economic development partners. The initiative resulting from their work has become known as the Getting-To-Work program.

With support from a $100,000 Easter Seals Grant received in 2017, the Getting-To-Work team is in the middle of two major projects. First, they are running a county-wide survey to objectively assess and prioritize barriers that prevent willing residents from entering the workforce. With evidence, the team expects to justify expanded investment to solve the transportation challenge. Second, with Specialty Cheese Company (SCC) serving as the pioneer, the team is running an employer subsidized ridesharing pilot to test and refine operational concepts. Within the pilot, more than 40 workers on all 3 shifts and 5 contracted drivers participate in round-trip ridesharing runs along two high-demand routes.

According to Scharfman, the pilot has improved SCC’s ability to recruit workers, virtually eliminated absenteeism, and noticeably increased employee morale and retention. Said Scharfman, “I’ve been convinced for a long time that lack of transportation in Dodge County has negatively impacted the grow rate of my business. Now I’ve seen the positive impact on residents when we remove barriers and draw more people into the workforce. I am absolutely delighted by the results.”

Armed with data and a proven ridesharing model, the Getting-to-Work program is now planning strategies for expansion and sustainability. “From MadREP’s perspective, I’m excited about the possibility of growing or replicating this program in our other rural counties in south central Wisconsin,” said Dalhoff. But it goes beyond that. As the agency providing significant grant funding for the program, Easter Seals is watching as well. And if Dodge County, Wisconsin can crack this nut, rural counties all over the US may reap the benefits.