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The Nica Jones pictured on the wall of the Fish & Wings Fish House hardly resembles the one taking orders behind the counter.

In the picture on the wall, she stands at a microphone in front of a band, her hands placed defiantly on her hips, a red carnation behind her ear accenting her unrestrained afro as her gaze drifts coolly offstage.

Behind the counter, her hair is pulled back, she wears a t-shirt and blue jeans. When customers walk into the strip mall fish joint on Imperial Boulevard in Encanto, she smiles warmly and rings up orders for take-out fried fish as the deep fryers crackle and sizzle behind her.

Jones aspires to the life in the picture — that of an R&B singer — but this summer realizes that she is lucky to have her job behind the counter, and another next door at the Isis Beauty Salon. Her good fortune is largely due to a new summer jobs program developed by the San Diego Workforce Partnership with $10.5 million in federal stimulus dollars.

In the worst job market in nearly a generation, the program will offer a lifeline, albeit a temporary one, to young residents from some of San Diego’s toughest main streets. Most of the $10.5 million will be spent by the end of September, the rest by next year.

“Youth employment this summer is going to be virtually nothing. Retail has closed, cities and municipalities can’t put them to work because of their budgets, and more adults are competing for those jobs” young people have traditionally filled during the summer months, said Mark Cafferty, president and CEO of the Partnership, which distributed the federal money to twelve agencies countywide through the program, called Hire-A-Youth.

Jones is working alongside her friend Ahmad Muhammed, 18, whose father, Carl Muhammed, owns both the restaurant and beauty salon. The senior Muhammed wouldn’t be able to pay Jones and his son if not for the program, which in total will pay the wages of 200 low-income people between the ages of 14 and 24 in southeastern San Diego, and more than 3,000 countywide.

In southeastern San Diego, the program is administered by the Coalition of Neighborhood Councils, which has already received more than 400 applications for the 200 slots. “You have to be very poor to qualify,” Cafferty said. “What is good about that is that these jobs are going to people who are struggling right now.”

CNC director Dwayne Crenshaw said that for youth in the city’s southeastern communities, the chance to work could translate into longer-term opportunities, something many in his community don’t often receive because they never graduate from high school.

“We hope a number of people will be placed into apprenticeship and career paths to get them career-oriented training,” he said.

The organizations the Partnership works with will in many cases offer practical training as well as exposure to professional workplaces.

“We’ve got young people doing things that are the traditional summer jobs like working in retail or a restaurant setting, but we’ve also got kids who are going to be working at Qualcomm, in the biotech and life sciences industries, in the emerging green jobs industry,” Cafferty said.

Jones’ and Muhammed’s jobs aren’t glamorous. The two recent high school graduates cook, clean, wash hair, answer phones, and help out with the day-to-day tasks that keep the fish joint and hair salon running smoothly.

But the money they’re earning is allowing Muhammed to help out at his dad’s shops, where he said business has slowed significantly in recent months. His dad benefits from the extra help at no cost to his businesses.

Jones, who lives on her own and last month was laid off from her job at Albertson’s, will now be able to make each month’s rent. As an individual, she qualified for the program because she earned less than the $5,414 cap in the last six months. The income cap gradually increases with family size.

Like his friend Jones, Muhammed also dreams of being a professional musician.

Working for the family makes it easier for both of them to chase their musical dreams. The two write music and lyrics, record songs, and perform in the hopes they’ll attract the attention of someone who will help them break into the industry.

On a recent day, their clothes still fragrant from the aroma of fried fish, Muhammed and Jones made their way to the Upaka Center, a multi-purpose musical facility where they rehearse for shows and record tracks in a small studio that the senior Muhammed set up when he realized Jones’ and his son’s musical potential.

Walking into a large rehearsal studio, Muhammed grabbed a microphone stand, positioned himself in front of the room’s mirrored wall, and with the grace and confidence of a seasoned stage performer, tilted the microphone and swayed his hips to the beat of a hip hop song he sung a capella.

“We want to represent San Diego,” he says when he talks about the visions he has of his future musical career. While the music scene in San Diego isn’t as developed as it is in Los Angeles or New York, he said, there is a lot of talent in the city that should be tapped.

In an adjacent room, Jones’ voice could be heard belting out lyrics in a soulful, lilting cadence. She moved out of her house at the age of 16 because she got tired of “moving around all the time” with her mother.

When Jones was a girl, her mother bought her an “old crusty baby grand piano that she found in some thrift store.” She learned to play, and has been hooked ever since. “My whole life has consisted of music,” she said.

Neither Muhammed nor Jones knows for sure what they’ll do when the funding they’re receiving for their jobs ends, nor does the senior Muhammed know whether he’ll be able to continue employing them at the end of the summer.

They’ll look for other jobs, and they said they hope the experiences they’re gaining helping to run a business will make them more desirable applicants. In the meantime, they’ll use some of their summer earnings to cover costs associated with their musical pursuits, like costumes and equipment.

Cafferty acknowledged that the summer placement program could draw criticism for being only a short-term solution for many youth, but that fact, he said, reflects the broader goals of the federal stimulus package.

“This is direct stimulus into the economy,” he said. “Roughly $6 million-plus goes directly into the pockets of young people, who will do with it what young people do. Some of them will spend it, but some of them might also help out their families.”

Uncertainty over post-summer job prospects, though, is something Cafferty said his agency is hoping to address. The Partnership will use about $3 million from the federal grant over the next year to develop longer-term youth employment resources.

“There are thousands more [young people] that are struggling right now who might be making too much money” to qualify for the federally-funded placement program, Cafferty said.

“We have well over 300,000 people in the region who are age-appropriate for a program like this,” he said. “If we can figure out how to build a broader coalition in San Diego of foundations or philanthropic organizations, businesses—if we can work as an entity to keep federal money coming, we may be able to put 8,000 people to work next summer.”

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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