Nhi Van Phan was a SPY at the Arlington Education Center. Huong Chau is a SPY at Wakefield High School. Spencer Ross was such a good SPY at the Culpepper Garden senior citizens' home that he stayed there through his junior year in high school and kept working this summer.

Arlington's "spies" are not undercover agents-in-training, but youths between 14 and 21 who spend the summer working in county agencies and private organizations under the federally funded Summer Program for Youth (SPY).

This summer, 150 Arlington youths sampled the working world as printer's aides, gardeners, secretaries, auto mechanics and cable television technicians. Last week, the county honored 55 of the "spies" with certificates and gave plaques to the 10 judged sharpest by their supervisors.

"The reason why you're here is that your supervisors . . . feel you provided them with a kind of service that was a real value to their organizations," Sheldon Ballatt, director of Drew Community Center, told the crowd scattered in the theater of Thomas Jefferson Intermediate School.

The audience was spread out in pairs and clusters: Wanda Smith was in the third row with her supervisor from the Arlington County sheriff's office; Loan Mai sat with Dennis Smith, public information officer for Arlington schools; Huong Chau chatted before the ceremony with Laura Grove, who supervised her work as a secretarial aide at Wakefield High School.

Chau's first summer job required her to tackle technology as well as to work with people.

"About a week after she began, we began a new phone system. Guess who was the first to learn it," Grove said. "Your best advertisement is how you answer the phone. We had no problem with Huong. She just fit in beautifully with all of us."

SPY, run through the federal Job Training Partnership Act, was forced to shrink this summer because of funding cuts, according to program director Addie Chang. Last year, Chang said, about 240 youths worked for 10 weeks. This summer, the stints were trimmed to eight weeks.

Spencer Ross, 17, said if he hadn't spent last summer installing pipelines for hydrants at Culpepper Garden, "I probably would have sat at home and watched TV." Instead, "I learned more about plants; I learned about getting to work on time. I didn't have to ask my mom for any money."

The program's directors say they try to give the "spies" not only a single summer job but career ideas, interviewing skills and job-hunting tactics that will carry them over other employers' thresholds.

For Nhi Phan, his job programming the names of Arlington's gifted and talented students into a computer confirmed his love for computer science. "I learned to communicate with people and I learned a lot about how to overcome difficult work. I can sit all day long and just do computer," he said.