Employers Open New Routes for Workers Commuting to Suburbs

AN increasing number of blue-collar jobs are shifting from the city to the suburbs. For many inner-city residents the toughest challenge in following these entry-level jobs is finding transportation. A number of suburban employers and developers who need such workers and cannot find them in the suburbs are accordingly taking the lead in opening new routes for the outbound city commuter. Some have lobbied public transit for more frequent service to suburbs. A few run private vans or buses to and from the inner city or from suburban pickup points. Some employers help to arrange car pools. One group in Passaic County, N.J., has even helped to refurbish donated cars for group commutes.

By finding suburban jobs and providing a mix of bus, van, and car-pool service, Chicago's three-year-old nonprofit Suburban Job-Link, a subsidiary of Just Jobs Inc., helps 600 West Side inner-city residents of North Lawndale and Little Village to commute each day to jobs in the northwestern suburbs. Positions range from order fillers to sweepers.

``We avoid fast-food and retail-sales jobs because they're generally part-time, don't pay too well, and definitely don't have benefits,'' notes Warren Clements, general manager of Suburban Job-Link.

In Philadelphia a group called Accessible Services acts as a job broker and transportation agent for some 150 inner-city residents who commute to suburban blue-collar jobs. Like its Chicago counterpart, the agency avoids fast-food and retail jobs. ``The turnover is so high that we would have to keep selling that [bus or van] seat,'' says president Mark Welsh.

As businesses have moved farther away from the city, so have hotels and restaurants to service them. Many now actively recruit in the inner city. At least 5 to 10 percent of the staff at the Sheraton North Shore Inn in Northbrook, Ill., for instance, is from Chicago's inner city, says Sharon Lundquist of the personnel office. Most come by bus. Competition for workers is such that ``there is a real battle on in starting wage rates,'' Ms. Lundquist says.

For inner-city job seekers, reverse commuting is increasingly common.

In Maryland an estimated 10 percent of the 105,000 employees in the area of the Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) Airport come from Baltimore's inner city. ``Our group tries to find solutions to their commuting problems,'' says Nancy Van Winter, executive director of the Greater BWI Commuter Transportation Center. She says the large number of new day-care centers in area offices make such jobs more attractive.

A number of large companies in Concord, Calif., some relocated from San Francisco, jointly subsidize a circle bus route that picks up outbound city commuters at the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in Concord. City residents should carefully research commuting options before accepting or transferring into jobs outside the city, insists Clare Creegan, director of the transportation system management program in Concord. She is one of a growing number of such officials around the country who are trying to craft better transportation packages for outbound commuters.

In New Jersey a state-operated bus carries commuters daily from the city of Trenton to work in the stores and offices of Forrestal Village on Princeton's outskirts. But Tom D'Elia, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Labor, insists that the transportation challenge for most who want to commute from city to suburbs remains steady. He says public transportation from northern New Jersey into New York City, for instance, is much better than it is to the suburbs.

As more and more low-skilled jobs move to the suburbs, experts say, outbound commuting will inevitably get more high-level attention.

``The reverse commuting problem is just monumental,'' says Mr. Clements. He says the current recession is only ``masking'' the dramatic shortage of entry-level workers that Chicago's northwest suburbs will face.

``I think the suburbs are going to be the locus of almost all low-skill job growth,'' agrees Frank Kasarda, director of the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina and an academic authority on this subject. ``It's an irony and a tragedy that we have huge numbers of unemployed city residents at the same time when suburban businesses face a labor shortage.''

Still, not everyone is convinced of the need to link inner-city workers with suburban jobs. Many urban officials, reluctant to export workers even for the day, prefer to focus on upgrading job and education skills of inner-city residents in hopes of filling more available urban white-collar jobs.

Others argue that cities, too, have service jobs but that inner-city residents often don't get them. ``Some people say this is really a question not of location but of access,'' notes Chris Tilly, a visiting professor in urban studies and planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Barry Bluestone, a political economist at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, agrees. ``It isn't a question of being in the wrong place. It's being the wrong age with the wrong amount of education, and very likely the wrong racial characteristics,'' he says.

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