A worker boards a Get2Work Now van. Credit: Manufacturing Works

Carzell Tillie of Euclid was working with his father, rehabbing houses, when he learned of an opportunity from his pastor. Lincoln Electric offered paid training that would lead to a good-paying job with benefits and a future. The best part for Tillie, who didn’t own a car, was that a program called Get2Work Now would provide rides to and from the training facility every day.

“Without that, I don’t know if I would have been able to get through the program,” said Tillie, who completed the training and has been working at Lincoln Electric for three months. “So far, so good. Everything’s working out. I’m looking forward to being there multiple years.”

Get2Work Now is a collaboration between the Cleveland Clergy Coalition, the American Association of Clergy and Employers and Manufacturing Works, which promotes and supports manufacturing. It got started in 2019, when the coalition began trying to help people find jobs in manufacturing. Pastor Aaron Phillips, executive director of the coalition, said they quickly realized that transportation was an issue for many. But there was a potential solution sitting right in the parking lot: church vans.

Carzell Tillie stands outside Lincoln Electric in Cleveland
Carzell Tillie stands outside Lincoln Electric in Cleveland Credit: Carzell Tillie

The same year, the Fund for Our Economic Future set out to find solutions to a decades-old obstacle keeping people in poverty: access to good-paying jobs, the kinds most often found in suburban office parks and industrial zones. These places require long bus rides, if they’re accessible by public transit at all. So the Fund named its initiative the Paradox Prize, a reference to the dilemma that traps many: can’t get a job without a car, can’t afford a car without a job.

An advisory committee reviewed 150 proposals for pilot programs from across Northeast Ohio and chose eight to fund, including three in Cuyahoga County.

“Operating across urban, suburban and rural communities in seven counties, the pilots benefited more than 1,300 residents, enabling individuals to connect to jobs that were previously inaccessible, and worked with more than 400 employers,” the Fund reported at the conclusion of the initiative in 2022.

Of users who reported their racial or ethnic identity, two-thirds identified as people of color. This was especially encouraging, because, as the report noted, “Northeast Ohio’s Black residents are disproportionately affected” by a lack of transportation options.

Four of the eight projects continue to operate, at least in some capacity, including Get2Work Now.

“In short,” the report stated, “the transportation paradox is solvable.”

But the project also confirmed that business leaders will not take the lead in finding new solutions. In a survey, just 3% of employers said that they were likely to consider transportation services and/or commuter benefits in the next five years.

So who will?

“That’s actually one of the motivations for the Fund doing this work over the last couple of years,” says Bethia Burke, president of the Fund for Our Economic Future. “Our objective, as an organization, is to problem-solve in that space that isn’t somebody else’s job already.”

But no one organization can tackle the problem alone. The Fund remains involved, Burke said, but various agencies and appointed officials in Cuyahoga County are carrying on the work that the Paradox Prize championed.

Employers benefit too

Get2Work Now was the only program chosen for the Paradox Prize that did not include a transit agency among its collaborators.

The service has evolved over time, according to Adam Artman, vice president of workforce development at Manufacturing Works. The pandemic and rising gas and insurance prices have presented challenges, but the program has endured because it provides an invaluable service, not just for car-less workers but also for the companies who need them.

“[Employee] retention is the name of the game,” Artman said. “Manufacturing has a high cost of turnover, more so than many other industries, because there’s a lot of cost involved in upfront training.

“We have seen better retention with people who are riding in the van together” than among workers getting there on their own, he added. “A lot of that is a sense of community and belonging. Sometimes that can be lacking in the manufacturing industry. That was one of the positive consequences that we didn’t foresee but we’ve been really pleased about. We feel like there’s some magic there that we didn’t anticipate.”

SHARE Mobility vans like the one seen here help people get to jobs in Solon
SHARE Mobility vans like the one seen here help people get to jobs in Solon Credit: SHARE Mobility

Get2Work Now has served more than 500 people, according to Pastor Phillips. Currently, the vans are transporting 25 to 30 people per day to training programs like the one Carzell Tillie completed and 15 to 20 to two employers in Macedonia. Employers contribute to the cost of running the service, but it’s not enough to help it grow.

Private-public partnerships and microtransit solutions

In December 2022, Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA), the City of Solon and SHARE Mobility launched the ConnectWorkS program to help people get to jobs in Solon more easily. Solon is the second-largest job hub in Cuyahoga County, after Cleveland, according to Mayor Ed Kraus.

ConnectWorkS is an example of microtransit, which the American Public Transit Association defines as “small-scale, on-demand public transit services that can offer fixed routes and schedules as well as flexible routes and on-demand scheduling.” Vehicles operated by SHARE Mobility pick up workers at RTA’s Southgate Transit Center in Maple Heights (where four bus routes originating in Cleveland converge) and drive them to the Solon companies that have joined the program. Those employers are covering half the cost of the service; the rest is funded with a grant from the Ohio Department of Transportation’s Ohio Transit Partnership Program.

SHARE Mobility is a Columbus-based software and mobility company that offers transportation solutions to companies employing hourly workers. SHARE boasts that its service can help companies relying on hourly workers exceed their recruiting, hiring and retention goals.

Microtransit solutions address the “first mile, last mile” dilemma, said Annie Pease, senior advisor for transportation to Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne. Many people who don’t own cars face long walks to the nearest bus stop or train station and/or from the bus or train to their destination. (About 25% of Cleveland residents lack access to a car, and about 12% of county residents do.)

This is as much a challenge for companies as it is for would-be workers, Pease saids, even if most companies still don’t realize it. Research that preceded and inspired the Paradox Prize revealed that “many employers had no idea how their employees were getting to work, where they were coming from or what that experience was like,” she explained. Nor did most employers connect that to their struggle to attract and retain workers.

Make your own way

For workers who want to organize their own alternatives, the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) partnered with Commute With Enterprise for its Vanpool program.

“Vanpools are a way for five to 15 people to get access to a van, complete with insurance, maintenance and fuel,” the NOACA web site explains. “All members of the vanpool split the operating costs, keeping your commute affordable and stress-free. It’s a great option for groups of commuters who live and work near each other and have similar work schedules.”

Enterprise owns and operates the vans, and vanpool riders split the costs. NOACA offers subsidies of up to 80% of the cost for eligible vanpools that support travel options where public transportation is not adequate; that connect those in need to new employment opportunities; and that operate at maximum capacity and benefit.

There are currently 22 vanpools serving about 100 riders, according to a NOACA spokesperson.

NOACA’s GoHio Commute is an online platform that anyone in Cuyahoga and four adjacent counties can use to find alternatives to driving.

What’s next

In February, RTA issued a request for proposals for more ConnectWorkS programs like the one already serving Solon.

“While the program is targeted in industrial park-type settings where high numbers of employers and employees are located but are not directly on transit lines, it also has the potential to serve other markets where first/last-mile rides would benefit a community,” the RFP states. The deadline for proposals is April 20.

Meanwhile, the Fund for Our Economic Future, Team NEO and county officials are working on this problem from the other direction: encouraging companies to think about transportation challenges when deciding where to locate or expand and helping cities rethink zoning regulations that might exacerbate the problems. Signal Cleveland will report on those efforts in the near future.

Director of the Editors’ Bureau (he/him)
Frank is an award-winning reporter and former editor at alternative newsweeklies in Cleveland and Philadelphia. He has worked with writers of all experience levels on beat reporting, features, investigative projects and books.