OUT of work and almost out of confidence, Stephen Johnson was walking among the gutted buildings and abandoned lots of Chicago's West Side last August when he spotted a new sign on an old brick garage: ''Suburban Job-Link.''
''On a whim, I gave them a call,'' says Mr. Johnson. Within a week, Johnson was back at the garage, stepping into a white Job-Link minivan for a ride to a new, $7-an-hour job, with benefits, at a confectionary factory 20 miles outside the city.
Cities eager to try new welfare-to-work strategies are increasingly turning to groups like the nonprofit Suburban Job-Link to bridge a growing divide between poor, isolated inner-city populations and more affluent, opportunity-rich suburbs.
''We are consciously trying to open up the suburbs as a place of work for the inner-city poor, instead of granting them access only to job opportunities around the corner,'' says Mark Hughes, director of Bridges to Work. Starting this winter, the four-year, $25-million program, which is funded by private foundations and government agencies, aims to promote ''reverse commuting'' in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Chicago, and Denver.
By promising a ride, a job, and hope for a full-fledged career, reverse-commuting operations offer a quick, if partial, solution to a troubling trend in urban America. Cities face a rapidly rising concentration of jobless, lower-skilled workers, while the overwhelming number of new, entry-level jobs with livable wages and benefits are located in distant suburbs.
This mismatch, if ignored, will exacerbate the ''poverty and ghettoization'' of the urban core, according to an October report by Congress's Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). As old central cities give way to ''new metropolitan economies,'' strong regional partnerships are vital, says report director Rob Atkinson.
Two-thirds of the jobs created from 1980 to 1990 in the 60 largest metropolitan areas in the United States were outside core city counties. In some cities such as Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee, all the net job growth was outside the central county. Fifty-seven percent of office space is now in the suburbs, up from 25 percent in 1970, census figures show.
Businesses are drawn to suburbs because government tax policy and price subsidies make sites there cheaper, according to the OTA report. Technological change and the information revolution have also driven the shift.
Manufacturers adopting assembly-line production have quit multistory buildings downtown for sprawling one-story complexes outside cities. Wholesalers have abandoned urban locations near railheads and ports for suburban sites near interstate trucking beltways.
Retail and other service firms have followed the shift of companies and people. About 55 percent of Americans live in suburbs, more than twice as many as in central cities.
But while most Americans have ready access to suburban jobs, tens of millions of predominantly minority residents, constrained by racial discrimination and poverty, remain behind in depressed ghettos, says Mr. Hughes.
Reverse-commuting programs can help inner-city residents earn good wages and benefits and reinvest in their home neighborhoods - rather than await long-term efforts to rebuild central cities.
Denver, for example, lost 13,000 jobs from 1980 to 1990 while its suburbs gained 184,000, says David Ford, a planner for the mayor. Today, Denver seeks to match jobless workers from impoverished Curtis Park with high-tech and service companies in southeastern Denver and Arapahoe County. ''Employers are crying out for workers,'' Mr. Ford says.
Philadelphia, in contrast, plans to test a larger-scale program by recruiting citywide for jobs in prospering Montgomery County.
In Chicago, JobExpress, a new ''bootstrap'' service of Suburban Job-Link, is targeting a severely distressed cluster of West Side communities. There, a third of the 184,000 mainly black and Hispanic residents live below the poverty line, one-third are on welfare, and the unemployment rate is 17 percent, city data show. In Johnson's North Lawndale neighborhood, half the population is poor and unemployment is 27 percent.
Since last February, JobExpress has trained and placed more than 200 West Side residents in $6- to $8-per-hour jobs with benefits in industrial parks near O'Hare International Airport in vibrant DuPage County, which leads the state in job creation.
''I'm hoping to get a job in one or two days,'' smiled Melody Dixon, a single mother of three, as she arrived at a Suburban Job-Link training center last week.
Business in this area is booming. ''There are always jobs available,'' says Laurie Stone, president of the Greater O'Hare Association of Industry and Commerce, who welcomes support in recruiting from JobExpress.
Still, the leap to the suburbs is hard for some workers. Long commutes, unfamiliar job cultures that stress problem solving and team work, and difficulty adjusting to ethnically diverse workplaces lead some to drop out, says JobExpress director David Boyd.
But the majority, like Johnson, do well. After working for Q and A Products in Bensenville, Ill., for four months, Johnson recently got a raise and bought a car. Next month, he'll start night school to learn to be a chef. ''For me, this has been completely successful,'' he says.