CEO Paul Williams of Project for Pride in Living (PPL) is pleased with the nonprofit's new career center in the refurbished, long-vacant Franklin Theater, next door to PPL's headquarters on East Franklin Avenue on the Near South Side.

Senior staff often had to vacate the office so trainees for $15-plus an hour beginning jobs in banking, health care, pharmacy or human services could interview with prospective employers or get financial or other counseling in a private space.

More importantly, the $9 million acquisition and refurbishment of the building allowed PPL to vacate cramped space a couple blocks away and, eventually, double its skills programs. PPL is one of the largest providers of affordable rental housing and training in the Twin Cities.

"We're always about hope, skills and asset-based development," said Williams, 57, a veteran financial and nonprofit executive. "It's our job to help people stabilize, find their strengths, become skilled on the pathway to self-reliance, and train them for living-wage jobs.

"And this is incredibly relevant while the Twin Cities are up to 140,000 people short of filling open jobs, according to RealTime Talent."

This year, working in partnership with employers, PPL will place 350-plus students in good jobs through training, including a "career-pathways" program that takes five to nine months to achieve. Fields include building maintenance and health care jobs that can pay up to $40,000 at the outset. In all, PPL trainers and counselors will work with 3,000 people, from a several-day introduction to computing class to a four-week train-to-work program for entry-level jobs, which average $15-plus an hour, such as bank teller or customer service representative.

The free training targets the unemployed, as well as those who want a better job, and taps residents of PPL-managed buildings.

PPL provides housing to lower-income folks and "transformative" career services to minority and immigrant clients.

PPL employs about 200 people and will generate $40 million in revenue this year from rent, services and private-and-public support. It manages nearly 1,600 housing units and trains people who go from joblessness or intermittent wages of less $10,000 a year to $30,000-plus with benefits.

Financial stakeholders have responded over the past couple of years. Carolyn Roby, a retired Wells Fargo executive and PPL volunteer, has led a capital campaign that has crossed 75% of its $12.4 million goal from individuals, foundations and businesses.

Ariana Caldero, 26, daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, was working for a hair salon and looking for a new job when she saw a promotion for PPL training in 2016.

Today, a graduate of PPL's health care training program, which involved five months of evening work, Caldero makes more than $20 an hour plus benefits working as a patient-assistance coordinator at Abbott Northwestern Hospital. She also is working on a two-year community college degree to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN). And she volunteers at PPL with the next generation of trainees.

"A normal workday consists of balancing clerical duties, administration, electronic medical records and … patient care, such as assisting charge nurses and helping and answering call lights and grabbing things that are needed. It's rewarding to be part of this team.

"I will probably go back to school and complete my bachelor's degree after earning my LPN."

May Xiong, a PPL vice president who oversees training programs, employer relationships and partnerships with Minneapolis Adult Basic Education and local community colleges, said PPL's new training facility has given the organization a lift. Students once studied together in hallways or at the desks of absent employees. It also means ample expansion space.

"We'll keep adding 'pathway' career programs as needed by client companies," Xiong said. "We want our people placed where there are pathways to careers and opportunities to advance."

Steve Cramer, CEO of the Downtown Council, ran PPL for more than a decade before Williams. He has said employers increasingly are considering nontraditional employees who tend to be older, more diverse and bring maturity and value.

"Some of these employers say their normal hiring practices misses some folks, particularly people of color," Cramer told me in 2017 of a continuing trend. "Career pathways … is one proven way. From my perspective, it allows people farthest from the job market, in terms of experience and skill level, to make the connection to the employment [market]."

PPL's renovated career center preserves the best of the century-old theaters brick facade and details, with modern classrooms and labs, counseling and study spaces, a kitchen and lounge.

The rebirth of the long-vacant Franklin Theater also is another marker in the generation-long rebound of East Franklin from a commercial corridor known for gin joints and crime to one increasingly associated with workforce housing, small businesses, ethnic foods and art.

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at