Before this summer, Erik Hatcher was drawing muscle men on paper. Now he's working in a Capitol Hill art studio making colorful, professional-looking Lucite figures to hang in a roller skating rink in Anacostia Park.

Kimera Koff was interested in architecture, but he never knew much about it. Through Archadventure and Cityplace, a program conducted at Howard University, the 16-year-old is learning the fundamentals of the profession -- and receiving a paycheck.

Elsewhere on the campus, teen-agers are earning money while learning job development skills, participating in community projects and listening to others talk about their professions.

Collectively, they and more than 18,000 other youths are the lifeblood of this year's Mayor's Summer Youth Employment Program, which is designed to help District youth learn by working, and in so doing, earn while learning.

During the seven-week program, the youths spend their days working on a variety of jobs, from cleaning District streets to processing the payroll for the youth program. They work in libraries, nursing homes, day care centers, private offices, stores, theater productions, medical and computer laboratories, and even in the offices of the Department of Employment Services, where the program is organized.

"We put them in real work situations," said Daryl Hardy, director of the program. Whatever the job, Hardy said, each teen-ager will gain valuable experience from the summer work.

"What the job promotes more so than paychecks is the worth of work. There are so many important jobs that the average person would say aren't important," said Larry Brown, public affairs director for the Employment Services Department.

But, Brown said, all the summer jobs are "work worth doing" -- employment that promotes a sense of worth and civic pride.

Instilling the work ethic has been one of the program's goals since it began in 1979. Initially the program, which had a $300,000 budget funded primarily by the federal Job Training Partnership Act, was available only to disadvantaged District youths.

Today it has increased its budget to $16 million in local and federal funds, and since 1985, Mayor Marion Barry has guaranteed a job to every D.C. youth age 14 to 21, regardless of income. Officials say the District is the only city in the nation to make such a promise.

Things "didn't always work smoothly," said Brown, adding that at first the program was not organized as well as it could have been. It took almost two years to develop a computer to speed up the process of matching jobs and providing important information on applicants, he said.

In the early 1980s, the program was plagued with problems: Paychecks were late, some of the youths had poor work habits, and some failed to show up for their jobs. But in recent years things have changed, officials said.

"We have gone through this summer without a hitch. That is a mammoth operation," said F. Alexis Roberson, director of the Department of Employment Services.

The program is run year-round, he said, with mass mailings early in the year to potential employers, and visits to schools, neighborhoods and public housing projects to solicit applicants. The youths undergo an application, interview and orientation process, job areas are categorized, and attempts are made to match applicants with jobs that have career ladders.

Supervisors are selected from the work sites and asked to attend workshops to be "sensitized to the commitment they have made," Roberson said.

"This is the young work force. These are the young people of tomorrow," Roberson said. Supervisors are taught not to "misuse and abuse the youth," she said, but they"The job is not only the job . . . . It's being dependable, getting in the habit of earning your way."

-- Samuel Hall

also are told that "if a kid doesn't get to work on time, don't let him slide -- dock him."

The summer job program should provide the youths, regardless of age, with skills they can use later, said Samuel Hall, director of career planning and placement at Howard. It also should help dispel the myth that some jobs are unimportant, he said.

One main problem with young people working is that "parents and friends like to downplay certain types of jobs," which can cause high turnover rates, such as in the fast-food industry, he said.

"But the job is not only the job," Hall said, "it's the whole routine -- dressing, getting there on time, listening to the supervisor. It's being dependable, getting in the habit of earning your way. You've got to start someplace."

Koff and Hatcher are two of 1,700 youngsters working in programs through Arts D.C., a nonprofit arts and humanities organization that operates in conjunction with the mayor's job program.

Hatcher, 14, who is working with eight others and visual artist Walter Kravitz making action figures, wanted to do something else during the summer, but his mother signed him up for the arts program. "It's kind of like we're all family because we see each other every day and we joke and play, but when we get serious we just do our work," he said.

Koff said he "was pretty skeptical about {the architecture program} in the beginning, mainly because I couldn't see how professionally conducted it was." He said the program's application and payment process "was not a convenient thing." The application process requires the youths to fill out a number of papers and talk to several people, he said, and the applicant must attend a workshop before receiving a paycheck every two weeks.

But, Koff said, learning about architecture has made it worthwhile.

Although Koff said he thinks there is a "certain amount of inefficiency in the mayor's program, the basic principle of the youth employment program is a good principle, but it's just a question of how good the program is carried out.

"You can't just say that every youth having a job is a success," he said. "The success is what happens when every youth has a job."