Stephon Lane, a one-time felon and alcoholic, today is a skilled worker with a great attitude and a future.

"Stephon mentors some of the newer guys around here," said Steve Farrell, general manager at Lazarus Auto Detailing in Maple Grove, which refurbishes used vehicles for Luther Automotive. "He's great."

Lane, 44, completed a chemical dependency program at Turning Point in north Minneapolis in 2007, embracing sobriety and his spirituality. He's shed 25 pounds since he went off the booze-and-junk-food diet. After treatment, Lane was referred to Emerge Staffing, a North Side employment agency that has received national attention in the people-development trade for its low-cost "alternative staffing" approach that links low-skilled applicants with employers in search of entry-level workers.

Think of Emerge as a kind of temp agency with a heart. The agency assesses candidates, works on attitude and job-skills training and provides support services.

"Stephon just got a promotion to supervisor," said Cheri Moseman, an Emerge counselor. "He is inside my heart. He tripped and fell a few times, but he is humble and strong and he has worked so hard for this."

Boy, do I know more than a few empty suits with fat wallets and huge egos who could use a little of what they're selling at Emerge.

Most of the agency's 500-plus annual clients hail from the ranks of the working poor and immigrants. They often need job-skills training and services such as links to child care, transportation or stable housing.

Emerge Staffing is a 13-year-old enterprise based in a renovated building on W. Broadway and is part of parent organization Emerge Community Development. Emerge was one of several alternative staffing organizations cited in a recent study by the Center for Social Policy at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, which found the Emerge model "uniquely suited" to helping target populations obtain immediate sources of income as well as long-term training and employment.

"It's great to have this validation that our model works," said Mike Wynne, executive director of Emerge Community Development, an affiliate of venerable Pillsbury United Communities. Wynne estimates that North Side unemployment is at least double that of Minnesota's 8.1 percent rate. "The model gives us a greater buy-in with employers. We don't have Allina or Wells Fargo Mortgage or as many big employers as on the South Side, so we prepare our candidates for temporary jobs outside Minneapolis at hotels and manufacturers and kitchens in the suburbs and they bring their money back to spend in their community."

Wynne said: "We're in a recession. But we haven't seen a downturn" in demand among employers for temporary workers.

Full-time work possible

Employers like the Emerge model because they can hire temporary workers in a soft economy -- employees who, if they work out, may get full-time jobs. More than 100 Emerge temps a year are offered permanent employment. The average temporary stint lasts several months and pays up to $14 per hour.

"Work leads to more work," said Wynne. "There's classroom training and mindset training and other training. But this is really about getting people acclimated to the importance and dignity and culture of the world of work. This is a great model for transitioning people into the workforce."

There's Ron Harris, an Emerge client so proficient in customer service and administration that after several months, he was hired full-time in 2007 by Van Wagenen, which serves the insurance industry. And Shirley Hollie, a homeowner, mother and widower who Emerge helped get work as a cook at a treatment center.

Emerge operates five vans taking workers without cars to jobs seven days a week in suburbs that are tough to reach by bus, including 10 Somali women who work at the Radisson Hotel in Plymouth.

Emerge works with several dozen employers, including American Building Maintenance, InterMet, Prescription Landscaping, Opportunity Partners and CSM Corp. The nonprofit is financed by placement revenue, government grants and donations.

Emerge's workforce and ventures programs are overseen by Dawn Williams, an accountant and former corporate controller who got turned off by a stint in the high-turnover temp industry. She joined Emerge 10 years ago as she picked up a master's degree in counseling.

We're in a job-hungry recession today. But this economy will recover and the experts say we're going to need more workers than ever in the future.

Back at 12-employee Lazarus Auto, manager Farrell ticks off the names of several employees who've been hired at Luther dealerships. Farrell, who also has worked as a prison chaplain, will only hire guys with troubled pasts. Lazarus also is looking for a new, larger space. Lane and a few other guys talk at breaks about sports, food and the pride they have in their work, a paycheck and paying taxes. The cars leave Lazarus in like-new condition.

"I love this place and I take it one step at a time," said Lane, who carpools to work and who also is a chef and licensed to operate a forklift. "I see some good things in my future. Maybe a barbecue place, Lord willing."

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 •