It's 3 p.m. on a weekday and the after-school exodus has begun.
High school students swarm to do what comes naturally: They head for the beaches, the playgrounds and the eatery hangouts. They escape into the leisure of teen-age chitchat and play.
But not all of them.
There's another exodus--one also involving thousands of high school students--that's changing the employment landscape of Orange County.
These are the students who work after school. Most of them are examples of how the American work ethic has filtered down to the pre-adult level as never before.
Tamim Azizadah of Anaheim's Savanna High School is one such worker.
But Tamim isn't the usual after-school employee. He doesn't serve burgers, stack dishes, box groceries, clip hedges, pump gas or take atickets.
He works instead in the softly lit, high-tech ambiance of a third-floor complex in the Anaheim Civic Center. For 2 hours each late afternoon, he sits before a bank of computer screens, monitoring and creating complicated graphs and designs.
Tamim is a computer operator for the city's traffic management center, a part-time entry-level job he has held since October.
And as a teen-ager he gets paid handsomely--much higher than the state-mandated minimum of $4.25 an hour. His wage: $9.21 an hour, the city's going rate for that post.
"He's a real bright kid and a whiz at computers," says his city supervisor, Jon Ringler.
But unlike many other job-commuting students, Tamim--a sophomore and honors student at Savanna--can't drive himself to work.
At 15, he's too young to have a driver license.
Granted, Tamim isn't typical of the local teen-age job market.
The vast majority of students still work in the traditional fields such as fast food, child care, supermarkets, movie houses, automotive shops and theme parks. And they are still paid at or close to the basic rates, usually from the $4.25 minimum to about $5.50.
But young Tamim does signify a small but growing sub-trend, especially in Orange County: More high school students are working in higher paying, higher status jobs that are a far cry from the more familiar, lower-image entry-level jobs.
Consider some others:
Mindi Pace, 17, of Marina High, who earns $9.50 to $11.50 an hour as a nursing-facility aide for a major countywide registry, Health Professionals Inc.
Dorinda Putt, 18, of Dana Hills High, who makes up to $9 an hour as a teller in Security Pacific Bank's Laguna Niguel branch.
Brad Romoff, 18, of Tustin High, who's a $7.85-per-hour assistant chef at the posh Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Center.
Todd Robey, 17, of Edison High, who was a $9-per-hour city lifeguard last summer in Huntington Beach, and who will be earning $6 an hour as a swimming instructor this summer for the Camp Frasier day camp in Laguna Hills.
All have moved up from the traditional low-paid fast-food or retail clerk circuit--jobs they regard as being on the lower rungs.
"I like what I'm doing now--it's more challenging, and gives me more responsibilities and people-involvement," explains Todd, who worked once as a counter clerk for a quick-service sandwich shop.
"No, I wouldn't want to go back" to fast-food operations, he says. "I wouldn't feel right. It would be like a step down."
There are more high school students working than ever before in Orange County.
While the state Employment Development Department doesn't provide data on actual high school student totals, the EDD says more than 100,000 workers in Orange County's 16- to 19-year-old labor force are employed during seasonal peaks.
"It's a safe guess that well over half of the (high school) seniors countywide are working, or have worked, while in school," says Ralph Welsh, career center director at Tustin High.
This same estimate is voiced by job-training specialists at other high schools, and it is similar to a 1982 nationwide study conducted by the federally affiliated National Center for Education Statistics, which found that 70% of high school seniors were working or had worked.
There's another--and more sweepingly obvious--reason for the growing high school work force: The youth job market has never been better in Orange County.
For 2 years, the county's overall unemployment rate has been under 4%, and the rate in recent months has hovered at or just under 3%.
And major expansions in numerous fields, including high-tech complexes, financial offices, health-care services and big hotels, as well as the retail centers and food establishments, have meant even more openings for entry-level workers.
Yet hundreds of jobs are going begging, especially the low-paid, low-status ones that have traditionally been filled by teen-agers.
Consider the case of McDonald's. To woo more young workers, the fast-food chain has in some areas lowered its employee age limit to 15 1/2 and raised its counter-crew pay to $4.50-$5, while at the same time hiring more senior citizens to help meet the employee shortage.