Three teen-agers were hanging around outside the Regional Youth Employment Program building Wednesday, employment applications in hand, looking forward to a summer of honest work.
Many teen-agers turn to selling illegal drugs as a way to earn money, said Eric Kilbourne, 17, of Southeast San Diego. "Kids my own age are driving Mercedes-Benzes and Rolls-Royces by selling a little dope. We're going to come here to make some money the right way."
Kilbourne and his two companions were among about 150 teen-agers at the opening of a program that seeks to find summer jobs for about 1,300 youths from low-income families.
Inside the Regional Youth Employment Program building at Martin Luther King Way and 13th Street, dozens of youngsters sat at desks and tables, filling out applications and taking a test that will help steer them to occupations.
The Regional Youth Employment Program campaigned heavily in San Diego high schools this year so that many youngsters could get an early shot at a job, said Gilbert L. Brown, the program's executive director. That's why, he said, the program is taking applications during the students' Easter break.
"We made the announcement of the program because so many kids will wait until the last week (of school) when there is nothing available," Brown said.
Brown's agency, which receives $1.5 million in federal money a year, is 15 years old. During that time, it has helped find jobs for 50,000 youngsters, he said.
The agency serves people between the ages of 14 to 21 who have limited or no job experience. For those between 14 and 16, the agency offers various public-sector jobs, where they are supervised, trained and paid the minimum wage of $3.35 an hour.
For those older than 16, the program relies on a "Hire A Youth" project in which jobs are provided by private businesses.
Most of the jobs--whether in government or in business--last two months, though some students are kept on as part-time employees once school begins again in the fall.
Rick Simon, one of the program's coordinators, said the program has been successful because it's been able to take kids who usually spend their summers on the streets and find them jobs.
The program is not without its problems, however. Officials said they have received complaints in past years from employers that some of the youths are unable to handle their job responsibilities and end up being fired.
He added that program counselors and prospective employers often have to take more time with teen-agers identified as gang members.
"The hard-core gang members--you have to spend a lot of time with them," Brown said, adding that typically, the program tries to find jobs for about 50 gang members each year.
"The 14- and 15-year-olds, we have to reach them before they make their decision (to get into gangs)," Brown said.
For the most part, agency officials said, teen-agers have been able to land jobs with such companies as General Dynamics and Sea World, and with the U.S. Navy, usually working as aides, secretaries or maintenance personnel.
Eric Coward, 15, of Southeast San Diego, said the lack of jobs in his neighborhood forced him to look into the summer job program. "I never had a job, and I need to know how it's like to get a job," he said.
Richard Davis, 45, a bus driver for the San Diego Unified School District, used part of his spring-break time off to drive two teen-agers to Wednesday's opening of the summer job program.
"It's a pretty good program," said Davis, whose own children found jobs that way. "That's 1,500 kids off the streets. Fifteen hundred kids don't have to worry about robbing and stealing. It makes them feel responsible."