Arguments about the link between transportation and employment in Howard County usually go something like this: Local companies are having trouble finding enough entry-level employes.

But just 12 miles to the north, in Baltimore, and 40 miles to the south, in Washington, are pools of unemployed workers who would gladly fill the vacant slots, if only they had a way to get here, goes the theory. Provide a public transportation system, and the problem is solved.

Or is it? What if the county poured millions of dollars into a mass transit system, only to find that no one would take the time or money to use it? What if the buses arrived and employers discovered that the riders possessed neither the skills for typing a letter nor the appearance for selling shoes?

These are some of the questions posed in a report published by The Rouse Co. last week that challenges many of the common assumptions about the potential role of transportation in remedying the county's employment ills. Its author, Edward J. Kane Jr., said he set out to test the idea of "public transportation as panacea" and found that the relationship "has been greatly overstated."

Just as transportation will not solve Howard's employe shortage, neither did the lack of transportation create it, Kane found. Rather, Howard, like other relatively wealthy jurisdictions, "suffers" from its demographics, "which do not support the existence of an entry-level and service work force."

Howard's unemployment rate of 2.1 percent is the lowest in Maryland, while the median annual household income of $40,000 is an average of $10,000 higher than than the medians in surrounding areas. The income necessary to afford the average home in Howard, meanwhile, is nearly $42,000, or $13,000 more than the income of a two-wage earner family paid $7 an hour each.

To prepare his report, Kane, a University of Pennsylvania senior who worked at The Rouse Co. as an intern during the summer, interviewed the owners or managers of 55 Columbia businesses, both retail and service/manufacturing, that have excess vacancies for jobs paying between $4.25 and $7 an hour. He also surveyed 571 jobless people in Baltimore and 74 in Howard County.

The study found:Most store owners believe that Columbia teen-agers have a "country club mentality" that makes them irresponsible and unwilling to work. At the same time, owners of retail businesses often complicate their hiring problems by excluding large groups of potential workers through strict age and appearance requirements. Image can be more important than salary in influencing a teen-ager's decision to take a particular job. Kane found that three clothing stores at The Mall in Columbia that pay less than the minimum wage had no problem finding help, while fast food restaurants were paying almost $5 an hour and almost begging for applicants. Howard may be losing clerical and low-level administrative personnel to Baltimore and Washington. The average secretary's salary in Columbia is $15,000, and in Washington it is $17,900. Personnel managers reported that the difference was often enough to induce someone to commute from Columbia while serving to discourage prospective employes from outside the county. The retailers were much less likely than the service and manufacturing industries to view transportation as a viable solution to finding entry-level workers, particularly if they would have to help subsidize it.

Thirty-seven percent of the retailers surveyed said they would not be willing to support a transportation system for which they have to pay, while another 40 percent they would have to weigh the benefits with the cost. Their primary concern was the belief that they would not be able to get the kind of workers they wanted through public transportation. Baltimore's unemployed people perceive Columbia to be a long way from Baltimore and are therefore hesitant to take jobs there. The ride from downtown Baltimore to the Columbia Mall takes an hour, but that does not include the time it takes to get downtown from a person's home. In addition, rides are few and far between, and for many of the respondents, the weekly bus fare of almost $20 did not make it worth their while to take a job paying $4 an hour.

"Employers overestimate the inherent value of work," Kane said. "They don't take into account the risk someone is taking if they start working and lose their benefits. Jobs can seem risky and unstable, especially if you have four children to feed."

The study's publication comes as county officials are beginning to ponder the future of public transportation in Howard. County Executive Elizabeth Bobo, who made the county's lack of mass transit one of her campaign issues, this year created the new cabinet-level position of "transportation coordinator" to heighten the county's involvement in regional transit issues. The Chamber of Commerce's Economic Development Committee has promised to make transportation one of its top priorities during the next six months.