Three of them were ninth graders, the fourth was a 10th grader and all of them were students in the District of Columbia public schools. They sat on steps outside the D.C. National Guard Armory yesterday, sharing a cigarette, looking through packets of career brochures they had just collected and wondering how they could find jobs to make money.
After talking to recruiters inside the armory at the second annual Careet Awareness Fair, the four young men said they had decided they would join the military because the military offered them a money-making job with the opportunity for job skill training at the same time.
Their sights had been lowered to practical skills, an indication of the country's economic condition more than anything else, counselors and recruiters at the fair said yesterday.
In a survey last December of 11,000 city students, the fields of arts, drama and music -- traditionally what most youngsters dream of -- were listed highest as careers students most wanted to know about.
But second in importance, according to the survey, was interest in service-related jobs -- secretarial skills, mechanics, truck driving and military careers.
Many of the high school students at the fair seemed more interested in becoming secretaries than managers or administrators, dental technicians instead of dentists and automobile mechanics instead of auto dealers.
"I know a lot of young people in my community who need jobs," said Keith Thornton, a 10th grader at Spingarn Senior High School and a Northeast Washington resident who shared a cigarette on the armory steps with his companions.
"I know some people just a couple of years older than me, in my neighborhood, who have dropped out of school without getting any training," he said. "Some of them are on dope, some are in jail and most of them just hang around on the corner because they don't have jobs," Thornton said.
"The lesson you can learn from this is that these days, you have to have a high school diploma just to mop floors."
Inside the armory yesterday at the Career Awareness Fair, the point made by counselors, professionals and recruiters alike was that youngsters should stay in school to acquire basic skills during a time in which Labor Department officials have estimated a 7.4 percent unemployment rate in the District and about four times higher for black teen-agers.
But the advice to stay in school also came at a time in which little instruction is being given because many teachers are on strike. Students told a reporter they were concerned about the disruption in their education, but did not know what to do about it.
"Why should we worry about going to school when they make us stay in cafeterias or the auditorium for movies and study halls," said one Langley Junior High student who said he skipped school. "That gets to be boring."
Since the strike began, public school officials have estimated that about half the students are not attending school. Mayor Marion Barry estimated Sunday that from 60 percent to 75 percent of the District's high school students are not attending school because of the strike and that they are roaming around the city.
Earl Ginyard, coordinator of the fair that is jointly sponsored by the D.C. public schools and the Prometheans Inc., a black veterans group, said the attendance at the career fair was higher than expected.
The fair, which ends today, was publicized in the schools about three months ago, Ginyard said. Most of the students who attended yesterday came by school bus, but some also came on their own, he said.
"On the practical side, the attendance today shows that these kids have a thirst for knowledge despite all that has happened [with the teacher's strike]," said Dorothy Jenkins, director of career planning and placement for the D.C. public schools.
"I came here to find out about job possibilities said Eugene Thornton, a ninth grader at Miller Junior High school and Keith Thornton's brother.
"If I can afford to go to college, I will, but first I plan to go to the Army to get some money and learn a trade," he said.
The uniformed services, including the military and police corps, were the most populat among girls and boys at the fair.
"For many of these youngsters, the military is considered the last resort," said Capt. Marxus Brown, an Army nurse. "If they think they cannot go to college, they see the military as the next best thing because college is a luxury that many of these kids feel they cannot afford."
Jenkins said, "When we have one-parent homes, there is a need for survival as well as achievement."
"As ninth graders or high school students, they have to make career decisions, to work now or to go to college, and that is dependent on their economic status," Jenkins said.
Percy Gray, 15, a ninth grader at Roper Junior High School, who came to the fair to learn the requirements to be a mechanic, said, "If I had to choose between taking a job when I finished high school and going to college, I would take the good paying job."
Frank Shields, 14, also a ninth grader at Roper and Gray's companion on the steps outside of the armory, asked counselors and recruiters if he could help carry packages for them in exchange for spending money.
Shields said he is looking for a job in a printing shop. Last year, he worked during the summer as a recreation aide with the city's recreation department and earned $2.65 an hour.
"I used the money to buy school clothes, and I bought sweaters and pants and tennis shoes for my brother and sister," Shields said.
At a congressional hearing Monday on the District's budget, Rep. Charles Wilson, (D-Tex.) criticized the mayor's proposed youth jobs program for this summer, saying that the proposed $2.90 hourly wage rate, the minimum wage, was too high for teenagers.