Open Road Opportunities in Madison
A Dodge County company launches an innovative rural transportation initiative.
Paul Scharfman saw a troubling trend. The owner and president of Specialty Cheese Company was not only having an issue filling open positions at the rural Dodge County business, but workers were often late or absent, and the employee retention rate was lower than he preferred.
Scharfman found that one of the main causes of the problem was a lack of transportation options, so he became a force behind the launch of a ride-sharing program called Getting-to-Work, in which Specialty Cheese Company served as the pilot.
“I truly believe that necessity is the mother of invention,â€ says Scharfman, who founded the company in 1991 and relocated its headquarters and production facility to the rural community of Reeseville in 2003. “To me, it was obvious that many people in our community wanted to work but were essentially trapped at home because they either didn’t have a vehicle or couldn’t access public transportation.”
With support from the Madison Region Economic Partnership, Scharfman organized the Gettingto- Work coalition in January 2017. The coalition included employers, nonprofits, government agencies and economic development partners in the region. The coalition secured a $100,000 grant from Easter Seals, a nonprofit primarily serving individuals with disabilities, veterans, the elderly and their families.
“The Easter Seals grant was provided so Paul’s vision could come to life and give income-disadvantaged people in rural areas a reliable mode of transportation,â€ says Jeff Stoltman, the Getting-to- Work program manager. “With this grant, we were able to conduct a pilot program on a small scale, and it didn’t take long for Paul’s hunch to be proven true.”
The Getting-to-Work pilot launched in January 2018 with 15 employees, a single driver and one route to and from Beaver Dam, serving those working the first shift at Specialty Cheese Company. By December 2018, the program had expanded to serve 70 employees, including about 35 new hires, representing all three shifts with 11 regular drivers and daily trips to and from three cities, which totaled approximately 300 unique trips over the course of a two-week pay period.
Today, Getting-to-Work runs 24 hours, six days a week, and it continues to grow in popularity. As it grows, so do the benefits for Specialty Cheese. Since launching the pilot program, the company has a stronger and more reliable employee base during the third shift, reduced tardiness and absenteeism across all shifts, increased employee morale and retention, consistently growing production numbers, and a long list of qualified applicants waiting to fill job openings.
“Employees pay $4 per trip and are picked up at their homes, then returned to their homes after their shift,â€ says Harley Lemkuil, Specialty Cheese’s ridesharing manager. “That’s $8 a day, and for those using the program daily to and from work during a five-day workweek, that comes out to $80 per paycheck. We’re able to keep costs relatively low for employees because Specialty Cheese covers about 80% of the drivers’ fees, and we think that’s a big reason this has worked so well.”
Rural Ridesharing Catches On
Plans are in the preliminary stage to expand the Getting-to-Work initiative beyond Specialty Cheese.
Lemkuil says the ultimate goal is to improve the transportation infrastructure across Dodge County by connecting with other likeminded business leaders and demonstrate how beneficial a program like Getting-to-Work can be for both rural residents and the companies that depend on them.
“There are so many people in rural America who are unable to take advantage of job opportunities, and having a strong employee base is critical for businesses like ours – producers of specialty goods – to thrive, so this has been a problem for a long time,â€ Lemkuil says. “With our ridesharing program, we think we’ve created something that can help solve this issue across the nation and help other rural communities grow their workforce and economy.”
If you’d like to learn more about the Madison Region, check out the latest edition of the Madison Region Economic Development magazine.