The past decade in Washington was an era in which jobs and economic growth shifted dramatically away from the center and to the suburbs, particularly to Virginia.

The first comprehensive statistical profile of the Washington metropolitan area's economic health, released last week by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, describes a regional economy that is generally vibrant and prosperous, even in recession. But it also portrays an economy being restructured in major ways.

Most striking of the changes is the shift in where the jobs are, a shift that appears to foreshadow a time when workers no longer will head for jobs in the city but will stay in the suburbs or commute there from Washington.

Although the largest number of jobs of any jurisdiction in the area is still in Washington, during the 1970s there was a significant change in where jobs were created. While new jobs popped up by the thousands in the suburbs, few new ones were added in the District -- where the unemployment rate is consistently the highest in the area.

"It is important to note that these comparative figures do not indicate a condition of decline for the central area of the region," the report cautioned. It attributed the additional growth in suburban areas to greater availability of land. But other indicators, too, including personal income and retail sales, showed strong economic growth in the suburbs and little change or decline in D.C.

According to COG researchers and D.C. City Council chairman Arrington L. Dixon, the purpose of the document -- which brought together table after table of figures usually viewed separately -- was to provide guidelines for planning and to help jurisdictions within the regions play to their strengths. "Different parts of the region will have greater attractiveness to different types of businesses due to locational advantages," it noted.

Besides showing shifts in growth and rapid expansion away from the center, the report also detailed the shift from federal government as the dominant employer in the region. Although the federal government is still the largest single employer, the services sector has surpassed the federal sector in number of jobs provided. Growth in federal employment slowed from an average annual rate of 3.4 percent during the 1960s to 1.4 percent during the 1970s.

Although many of those jobs include providing goods and services to the federal government, others do not. During the 1970s, the Washington area shifted from "being just a government center" to become a technical and international center as well, said Stephen L. Reichenberg, one of the authors of the report.

"The data highlights the fact that our region is being revitalized and expanding," said Dixon who heads COG's economic development advisory committee. Noting that the report suggested growth in jobs in technical areas and international finance, Dixon said he believed the document would send signals to the area's educational institutions and allow them to be more effective in training would-be workers for the jobs that exist.

The report focused on several industries that show a potential for growth in this area, including such manufacturing industries as precision instruments, electric and electronic equipment, transportation equipment, processing of foods and beverages and paper and allied products.

"Paper products are singly the most essential supply item used by this region's major industries," it noted. The Washington area now imports almost all of its paper products, according to the report, which then suggested that companies turning paper into finished paper products might locate here. (Pulp mills, a notoriously smelly type of manufacturing that usually locates nearer to natural resources, probably would not do so, the report added.)

The report also suggested there is more room for department and clothing stores and stores that sell building materials as well as room for more investment brokers.

Other major findings of the report included:

The Washington region, with a per capita income of $10,259 currently ranks second among the nation's largest metropolitan areas. Measured in constant dollars, area per capita income increased by 37.8 percent. The biggest increases were in the Virginia suburbs, with all the Maryland jurisdictions and D.C. registering increases smaller than the regional average.

Retail sales increased more in suburban Maryland and Virginia than they did in the District, according to the report. Additional data supplied by COG showed a 10.6 percent increase in retail sales for the entire region, adjusting the data to account for inflation. In contrast, retail sales in D.C. declined 25.2 percent but increased 13.2 percent in suburban Maryland and 33.9 percnet in suburban Virginia.

The region has one of the highest concentrations of young households in the nation -- 39 percent of all household heads are under 35. "That's important because younger people are more mobile and they go where the economic and job opportunities are," said Reichenberg.

The area also has the greatest concentration of scientists and engineers in the nation -- 142 out of every 10,000 residents.

Population in the area is expected by the year 2000 to be double what it was in 1960. In the same 40-year period employment is expected to triple.

Labor force participation in the Washington area in 1978 (the last year for which data was available) was 70 percent, compared with a national rate of 63 percent. Among the 10 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, the Washington region had the lowest female unemployment rate.

From 1972 to 1978 the overwhelming majority of new office buildings were located in the District of Columbia. But in 1978, office construction in Fairfax County climbed higher.

During the same seven years, D.C. accounted for more savings account dollars on deposit than either suburban Maryland or suburban Virginia. In 1979, however, suburban Virginia accounted for more savings account dollars on deposit than the District of Columbia or suburban Maryland.

"During the 1980s, the major economic development issues in the Washington region are likely to be the provision of an adequate labor force to support business growth, the availability of affordable housing for persons of all income ranges in proximity of employment locations, the provision of training which will enable unemployed and underemployed citizens to participate productively in the economic mainstream and the maintenance of fiscal health among the area's jurisdictions without placing undue financial burdens upon the area's businesses," the report said.