The 1978 unemployment rate for Delaware youths aged 16 to 24 was 45 percent. It's still higher than Gov. Pierre S. du Pont IV would like, but those aren't the numbers he wants to talk about.

He wants to talk about a special group of youngsters with a job placement rate approaching 86 percent, who earn an average of 38 cents more per hour and who work more hours per week.

These special youngsters are alumni of an innovative program called Jobs for Delaware Graduates (JDG), and the numbers take on added significance when you learn who they are. In order to get into the three-year-old program, you have to be a high school senior in the general education curriculum--neither college- bound nor in vocational training.

"We deliberately screen out those youngsters who know where they are going," du Pont says. "We concentrate on those who, statistically, are the most likely candidates for unemployment, and we find them jobs."

The jobs aren't necessarily that impressive, says Bebe Coker, JDG's director of administration. "We place kids in everything from fast foods and hotel work to factories and insurance offices, although very, very few in public service jobs. The important thing is that we are dealing with kids who would very likely be unemployed. Sure, there are a few superstars, like the young lady who's earning $16,500 a year as a lab technician, after making a string of D's in general education. But there aren't many of these. In fact, we don't even include them in our statistical reports because it would be misleading. Still, our graduates earn an average $4.12 an hour."

Results aside, there is nothing particularly magical about the JDG program. Youngsters who volunteer for the program spend two or three sessions a week --either in lieu of regular course work or, if their schools won't excuse them, in their free time during or after school-- learning such things as how to write resum,es, how to handle job interviews, how to look for work, how to make a good impression and what to do if you have trouble on the job.

But mostly they learn salable work attitudes. "We help them understand that all productive work is dignified," says Coker. "We help them understand the importance of that first job--not because they will be there the rest of their lives, but because that is where they develop their basic attitudes. We find that people who can keep a job for as long as nine months tend to stay employed."

JDG was born in 1978 during a brainstorming session in du Pont's office. "It was one of those feet-on-the- desk sessions where we try to look several years down the road instead of focusing on tomorrow's crisis," he said.

"We started talking about our tremendous problem with youth unemployment. It was obvious that we could not hope to have a prosperous state if nearly half of our young people were out of work."

The decision was made to enlist local businesses in a program to train high school students who would be going directly from school to the job market. The idea didn't catch on immediately. Business was reluctant. The state legislature refused to appropriate money for the first year's operation. Even high school counselors resisted the idea, because JDG uses its own counselors.

But nearly all of those early antagonisms have evaporated, and now the JDG program is in 24 of the state's 25 high schools. Indeed, under the name Jobs for America's Graduates, the idea has spread to several other states, including Arizona, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri and Tennessee. Each state tailors the program to its own pattern. In Delaware, for instance, half of the funding is from the federal government, with the rest split between the state and private foundations. Arizona's program gets virtually all of its money from the state legislature, while Michigan's will be funded privately.

But the basic idea is the same: that the best way to treat youthful joblessness is prevention. One of the key attractions is its relatively low cost: an average of $1,500 per placement in Delaware, for instance--a quarter of the cost of the CETA program--principally because JDG does not pay its enrollees.

It is clear the lame-duck governor of Delaware thinks he is on to something very special.

The numbers suggest he's right.