Praising the value of work over a life of crime, Mayor Marion Barry inaugurated the District's summer youth employment program yesterday. Aides said the program had attracted 21,300 young people, or 4,000 fewer applicants than jobs available.

"We're the only major city in America that . . . can guarantee a job for every youth that wants one," Barry said during the kickoff ceremony, which drew about 200 youths and city officials to Howard University Hospital. The outdoor event featured music and food and only a few speeches in the hot, noonday sun.

"If you think it's hot out here, go down to some of those dormitories at Lorton," Barry said, referring to the city's prison complex in suburban Virginia. Barry said the $3.35 an hour minimum wage "may not be as much as you want" but "it beats stealing, being on the streets, a life of drugs."

Howard is one of the major employers participating in the program, which provides jobs to youths ages 14 to 21 for up to seven weeks. The program began Monday, but city officials delayed the ceremony until Barry returned from a five-day vacation in the Bahamas.

City officials said the program has attracted fewer youths than jobs this year because some young people have not been motivated to participate and others who have been involved in previous years now can get jobs on their own without the city's help. Barry, as in past years, criticized private sector businesses that have been slow to participate in the District's $15 million program, about $7 million of which is paid with federal funds.

All but a small number of the summer jobs are with government agencies or private, nonprofit organizations, according to Alexis H. Roberson, director of the D.C. Department of Employment Services. Barry said he would press private businesses to become involved, and employment services officials said the District government would subsidize wages or grant tax advantages to firms that participate.

The program in the early 1980s was plagued with problems, including late paychecks, poor work habits and the failure of some youths to show up for jobs. In recent years, Barry said, the program has worked more smoothly.

Larry Brown, a spokesman for employment services, said that 14- and 15-year-old youths work about 20 hours a week and those 16 and older work about 30 hours a week. Officials said about 350 public and private groups are participating at 500 work sites. Barry said the District program is one of the best in the nation and offers more jobs than comparable and larger cities. The mayor said Baltimore has about 2,000 summer jobs, Cleveland about 7,000, New York City about 30,000, Chicago about 15,000 and Los Angeles about 10,000.

The District program, unlike programs in some other cities, is available to youths regardless of their parents' income, Barry said. He said such restrictions effectively "penalize success" and that "young people need to work and they are going to work."

Barry, referring to his Bahamas trip, joked that he had a hard time returning to work. "My mind is still {on} the islands in the sun . . . . "