Bus Plan Links Urban Dwellers With Jobs Waiting in the Suburbs

Chicago program transports the unemployed to where the work is

JOBS are hard to come by in Chicago's dilapidated West Side. The manufacturing plants that used to employ thousands have moved out or closed. Few companies remain.

So, every weekday starting at 5 a.m., hundreds of West Siders gather here in a brightly lit room on South Kedzie Avenue to wait for buses to whisk them to suburban jobs. They are poor, hard-luck people like Emmett Mitchell.

"If you are going to try to get higher, this is the best," he says of the transportation program. He worked 14 years at a unionized plant in the city. When new owners tried to throw out the union, Mr. Mitchell quit and came here to Suburban Job-Link. The program found him a temporary factory job initially. Now, he earns $7 an hour working full-time as a forklift driver in Bensenville, Ill.

The idea behind Suburban Job-Link is simple and it is catching on. The program brings together inner-city people who need jobs and suburban employers who need workers. Similar programs are in place in Boston, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee. Yesterday Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey proposed a five-year, $7.25 billion urban initiative that includes an inner-city-to-suburb transportation program.

"It strikes us as a good part of an overall approach to getting work to people who live in cities," says Eric Hauser, the senator's press secretary.

The idea is new enough that it would receive the smallest chunk of money ($15 million a year) in the eight-point Bradley plan. It would be targeted to cities where 75 percent of the job growth during the last 10 years occurred outside the central city. This would include 20 metropolitan areas, among them Chicago, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Detroit, and Washington.

During the past 20 years, Chicago has actually lost jobs, while suburban DuPage County has boomed, according to the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission. DuPage's employment almost doubled in the past decade alone. The growth is so great that DuPage businesses must import workers from the city and other suburbs.

That's where Suburban Job-Link comes in.

"We look at transportation as the answer to city poverty," says John Plunkett, president of the Chicago-based not-for-profit organization. Founded as Just Jobs Inc. in 1970, the program claims to have placed more than 5,000 poor Chicagoans into permanent, full-time jobs and more than 20,000 into temporary positions. Its buses run from a little after 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. the following morning to shuttle West Siders to and from work. Most of the jobs are in the suburban area around O'Hare International Airport .

THE group is not looking to place its clients in just any job. "We are looking for jobs that have some kind of future, so they can move up," says Bernie Ryan, the group's vice president of marketing.

Surprisingly, some of the best jobs are in manufacturing. "It sounds funny: target manufacturing for the future," Mr. Plunkett says. But "in manufacturing it's often easier to get promoted if you are a good worker and you show up on time."

Typically, Suburban Job-Link places newcomers as temporary workers and, if they show promise, encourages employers to hire them full-time.

"Outside of the program, many people don't find work," says Guillermo Torres, who got a full-time job packing books four months ago through Job-Link. "The transportation is critical. Good jobs are in the suburbs."

Not everyone succeeds. Alton McGrew had a temporary job through Job-Link, but quit after five months. "I got a little frustrated at Avon," he says. "It didn't seem like it was going anywhere, so I kind of gave up. And I kind of regret giving up because [now] it's day to day."

Mr. McGrew is one of several on-call workers at Job-Link. They get $10 for sitting in the waiting room for two hours. If a regular worker doesn't show up, these workers fill in.

Mark Elliott, a program officer of the Ford Foundation, calls Suburban Job-Link one of the best programs of its kind in the country. Earlier this year, the foundation gave $75,000 to a Philadelphia group to look at this and similar programs in Philadelphia, Boston, and Milwaukee.

"It's going to expand, I am sure," says Joyce Arrington, operations manager of Accel Transportation. The organization is a smaller, for-profit subsidiary of the LeClaire Service Corporation that runs a similar program. The Chicago group transports 125 inner-city certified nurses aides to three private health firms in DuPage County.

But although the idea is gaining support, the results have not been uniformly good.

When the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority started a special job shuttle five years ago, its first suburban route from inner-city Philadelphia was a great success. But of the five routes started since then, one was terminated after 11 months because of poor ridership and another was cut back to Saturday service because of intense opposition from suburban residents.

"It's been a mixed bag," says Jim McLaughlin, operations planner with the Philadelphia-area transit authority. The key is to have a large base of employers on which to draw, he adds.

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