Detroit — In white chef's hat and uniform, Jarvis Littleton dips his fork into a plate of spaghetti for an early stand-up lunch. He keeps a close eye on a nearby buffet pan of Irish stew that he and other restaurant students here at the Golightly Vocational-Technical Center have prepared as the main noon feature at the school's open-to-the-public Glass House Restaurant.
The course, which he attends half days, puts him one step closer to being a chef - his career choice since the sixth grade. One day, perhaps after advanced studies at Cornell University, he hopes to start his own restaurant, he says.
In a refrigerated room nearby, Bridgett Sharpe, a high school senior, puts plastic wrap around packages of meat she has just finished stacking. She took up meat-cutting because she was told ''the money was good.'' Besides, she says with a smile, ''it's fun.''
This huge, graffiti-free school with glass skylights is the newest of five Detroit vocational centers built as part of a 1975 school desegregation decision. During a typical day here, some 540 students take half-day courses in addition to academic studies at their regular high school. Everything from industrial electronics to fashion merchandising is on the agenda. The level of attentiveness is noticeably high.
Golightly director Claude Triplett, noting that an advisory board of business leaders helps keep the curriculum current and that actual job experience is part of the training, says the school's aim is to prepare students for apprenticeship programs at the entry level.
For Detroit, which leads the 30 largest cities in unemployment, according to the latest Census Bureau data, the new schools represent a kind of fresh vote of confidence that this auto city can yet become more than a one-industry town.
The structural shift under way in the national economy and the tug of war between cities and suburbs for new businesses have not favored urban job seekers. An estimated 3 of every 4 new jobs spring up in the suburbs.
Many of the new jobs in city cores are professional, skilled positions that go to suburbanites. Jobs in city government, long a key employer of middle-class blacks, have been sharply cut back. And much of the manufacturing that still goes on has been moving either to the Sunbelt or the suburbs. Several industrial cities have new transit systems, and reverse commuting is up. But many urban blue-collar workers find the new locations a real hurdle.
Many people displaced from manufacturing jobs have had to take much lower-paying positions where available. That structural shift, some experts say, is widening the gap between urban rich and poor in a dangerous way. ''The job market and the earnings structure is becoming much more highly polarized,'' says Brian Berry, dean of Carnegie-Mellon University's College of Urban and Public Affairs.
The challenge is particularly tough for urban blacks with few skills. ''The competition even for unskilled jobs is much more intense,'' confirms Dorothy Spruill of the urban coalition New Detroit, who works with unemployed 14- to 24 -year-olds. ''Youth unemployment is on us doublefold,'' she says, adding that she has ''stopped being surprised'' by the number of young people she talks with who are on welfare.
Wives of displaced workers often compete for every available urban job. So do other minorities. Roosevelt University urbanologist Pierre deVise says employers often give the edge to Hispanics, whom they see as having a stronger work ethic and willing, particularly if illegal aliens, to work for less.
The effect of this tightening unemployment situation on blacks and their family relationships has been ''devastating,'' says John E. Jacob, president of the National Urban League. It is a key reason for the strong national rise in the number of black families headed by women, he says.
''If men could contribute to these households, they'd be less apt to leave. We know there's a correlation between poverty and being single.''
There are some bright spots:
* Despite numerous plant closings, several smokestack industries have retooled and are showing profits again.
* The service sector is growing fast, just as the number of those coming into the labor force is falling off.
* Strong efforts are under way in several cities to increase job totals and make openings more accessible to the urban unemployed.
In Baltimore, a city that has one of the best records in minority employment, the Mayor's Office of Manpower Resources runs a free recruitment, screening, and job-placement service called Starters, which it urges developers to use.
When the Hyatt Hotel in the Inner Harbor area was built, the city winnowed down 6,000 applications to a more manageable 1,000 for Hyatt's final choice of 500 for new positions. In return, the hotel pledged to hire at least 150 of Baltimore's chronically unemployed and to set up a government-subsidized job-training effort.
In two years Starters has filled 1,637 new jobs. Most were given to black unemployed Baltimore residents. ''The key thing we provide is access,'' says city spokesman Stephen Kaiser.
Baltimore has also taken in more than $6 million in new jobs or contributions in support of jobs from local businesses and individuals for its Blue Chip-In program. Launched by Mayor William D. Schaefer in response to federal cuts, it focuses largely on summer jobs for low-income youths who qualify by keeping high attendance and grade levels in school.
Most cities now have some business-supported summer job programs. And the Reagan-proposed subminimum wage for teens, aimed at easing the problem further, now has the support of the National Conference of Black Mayors.
In Detroit a business and government-supported private effort with 15,000 volunteers called Focus Hope is training black unemployed workers as skilled machinists, one of the few manufacturing jobs for which demand is expected to grow.
The 80 trainees in the preapprenticeship program work in a vacated factory in a depressed part of the city, on machinery lent by the Defense Department. Some get tutoring in math, and all work on genuine contracts.
Ed Ross, one of the supervisors, notes as he speeds across the floor to check on an out-of-order parts-cutting lathe that so far, all 230 Hope graduates have jobs. A few, with the project's help, have even formed their own businesses.
''Blacks have always been shortchanged in educational and career choices, and we're in the business of proving capabilities in this one small area,'' explains the Rev. William T. Cunningham, founder and director of Focus Hope, which grew out of the 1967 Detroit riots as a civil- and human-rights group.
He says he hopes the example will ''open the floodgates'' for blacks in other long-closed job areas.
Urban minority youths who are heading for college in engineering or business and are potential corporate leaders are the object of annual searches in 17 cities by a business-supported nonprofit effort called Inroads Inc.
In addition to summer internships with a corporation, they receive special counseling in communications, community responsibility, social skills, and math.
''We're teaching them the ropes they need to survive,'' says Morton Stanfield , director of the Inroads in Pittsburgh. He says about 60 percent of the interns stay with the same company after graduation - success by the group's definition. ''But we lose too many students because of academics. If they can't do calculus, they often don't make it.''
Many urban job-training programs have to offer catch-up help in reading and math - in itself a sad commentary on the quality of urban school systems.
In many large industrial cities, school dropout rates are extraordinarily high - although often couched in protective statistics to make them appear less alarming.
Carl Holman, president of the National Urban Coalition, says dropouts see cousins and fathers out of work, and ''don't see a relationship between going to school and future employment.''
Recently in Chicago, where the Hispanic dropout rate has been estimated by some to be as high as 75 percent, hundreds of distraught parents marched in protest against the situation, urging more job training and the tapping of more Hispanics for top school positions. A new business-supported pilot program to ease the problem will include regular visits by social workers to homes of potential dropouts.
More evidence of a close link between school and actual jobs does help. In Pittsburgh, potential eighth-grade dropouts are given a special work-study curriculum. And students from Detroit's new vocational-technical centers take part twice a year in TV job telethons, often netting hundreds of job offers. Thomas Kiah, administrator of the Detroit centers, says he's confident that although no research has been done on the subject, the centers have helped lower the city's school dropout rate.
To try to remove the stigma that many minority parents and students still attach to vocational education, regarding it as second class, Detroit's college-bound students are urged to enroll in the centers as well. Dual certification is offered.
''A lot of kids are prepared for college who never get there,'' says Mr. Triplett, ''and there's nothing wrong with knowing how to be an auto mechanic while you go to medical school.''
Next: City officials face new challenges.