MEMPHIS, Tenn--Inside the Streets Ministries building on Vance Avenue, this graduation day is complete with caps and gowns, but instead of just pomp and circumstance and a diploma, these adult students also earned a chance at a better life.
"Good Morning everyone and welcome to the February 2015 Advance Memphis graduation. Whether that's an individual changing their life or a neighborhood changing its life together, it's together or we don't do it at all," an Advance Memphis staff member said.
Lives are being changed. It's seen in the eyes and felt in the embraces of these men and women who received special job training.
"And now I can say there is a program for people who want to have a second chance at life," an Advance Memphis graduate said.
These graduates are from Cleaborn and Foote Homes, a community near downtown Memphis.
They describe it as one of the poorest neighborhoods in America where unemployment runs rampant in the shadows of FedExForum.
"This program shows you how to go into the workforce and improve your life," an Advance Memphis graduate said.
Memphis is ground zero to an abundance of low-wage jobs, a population with many unskilled workers, a shrinking middle-class and high unemployment.
Randy Smith, 49, knows all too well about these challenges, especially not being able to land a good paying job to take care of his family.
"Yeah, that roller coaster life. With my work experience, I was kind of up and down with jobs working today. I was laid off, a job closed down or just say we're not going to do anything tomorrow. So, it was nothing ever steady. And being a convicted felon, it seemed like everywhere I went the doors were being closed in my face. I didn't think I had a way out. I found myself a few years ago I became homeless," Smith said.
Smith was told about Advance Memphis, an inner-city ministry on Vance Avenue and near Cleaborn and Foote Homes that gave him and other neighbors weeks of job training. They learn computer and math skills and become equipped to get and keep a job and manage and save money in this Jobs for life class.
Smith recently landed a full-time job at KM logistics in Memphis.
"God renewed my mind. Today I have my family back and I'm ready to start work. In our community we don't think about the corporate world. We'd rather push a basket down a Kroger when we don't have to be a basket pusher. We can be pencil pushers. We can be the managers, the assistant managers. There are different things we can do," Smith said.
Advance Memphis executive director Stephen Nash chokes up when he talks about starting this program back in 1999.
"Somebody said why don't we start a non-profit based on employment and you run it? I wrestled with that. I remember being in the bedroom with my wife and she said is this it? Are you sure? I don't have an absolute, but do I believe this is where the Lord is leading us. Yes, I do and if it's wrong I believe there's life after trying it, but I have to be faithful for what was in my heart." Nash said.
Last year, the Wharton Administration unveiled its Blueprint for Prosperity. The aim is to reduce poverty by ten percent by the year 2024 and to increase job creation, access and placement.
Recently, the city of Memphis was selected by the Obama administration to be one of several cities chosen to create a home-grown, high-technology workforce for jobs in software development, network administration and cybersecurity. The goal is to provide job training and boost higher-wage employment at a time of stagnant incomes.
Nash says this can be done right now.
"I'm amazed to see folks in the city want to see Advance Memphis replicated in other neighborhoods. Folks it's not that difficult. You need to show up, affirm the dignity of our neighbors and fellow-man and we need to listen and serve. I know it's(jobs) very important in our city. It changes households, it changes domestic violence and changes this perception of achievement and we begin to overcome fear and celebrate growth emotionally that's going on." Nash said.
Some say a poorly trained workforce leads to employees forced to take minimum wage jobs. These are jobs in which people can barely afford to feed their kids, and pay the rent.
Tracy Jackson is a veteran and father who knows the struggles of being unemployed or underemployed.
"I went through doing the drugs and being arrested in life and I think my greatest failure in life for me. ah, not being a father to my sons," Jackson said.
Jackson's life changed when he was told to visit the Workforce Investment Network offices on Beale Street and Danny Thomas.
It's a one-stop center where Jackson got months of extensive job training, resume development, and job search assistance.
Back in December, his efforts paid off when he was offered a full-time job at Nike making more than $40,000 a year.
"I cried because I went through so much and it was more so for my sons," Jackson said.
WIN serves job seekers in Memphis, plus all of Shelby and Fayette Counties. The agency uses federal dollars, and the city oversees the money to help job seekers prepare for and land jobs. It also helps employers train local workers. When the job seeker is suitable and eligible, WIN provides money for job training.
Kevin Woods is the executive director of WIN.
"If you're at a company that closes, if you're a veteran of war or a single mom trying to provide for your family on 10 dollars an hour, it's really tough," Woods said.
WIN receives almost a thousand visits from job seekers each month. It led to a partnership with companies such as Electrolux, Blues City Brewing, Southwest Tennessee Community College and Nike.
"Wouldn't it be great if we could find quality job training for that individual and turn that $8 an hour job to $12 an hour or $15 and suddenly they're able to work one job instead of two? If we don't do more to tackle poverty the cycle will repeat itself. We talk about issues like crime. We talk about issues like companies not wanting to be here and the talented young folks we educate and go off to college. How do we convince them to come home? It all starts with a vibrant workforce and it starts by showing we have the human capital here. We've properly trained folks, now come here and let us show you can count on dependable people in Memphis and throughout our region" Woods said.
It's why some say the most effective plan to combat poverty is to attract new higher paying jobs through a better trained workforce and turning the working poor into workers raising the quality of their lives like Tracy Jackson.
"It's going to make you a better citizen. It's going to make you a better father, a better worker So I can keep my job so they don't have to worry about housing me down at 201(criminal justice center). I pay for my own house. I pay property taxes," Jackson said.
Back at the Advance Memphis ceremony, these graduates say the right job can also rebuild families, communities like Cleaborn and Foote Homes and even a city.
"It's about becoming the city that God wants us to be creating, the neighborhood that God wants us to be and we believe that you guys are at the front of it," Advance Memphis staff member said.