The Reagan administration believes in the private sector. Its economic program aims to shift resources from public to private hands, and if that involves some initial pain, it is all for the best, officials argue.

One place where the pain is felt is in the ranks of the jobless. The administration is cutting back on benefits for the unemployed. It also is paring the programs now in existence to help provide jobs and training for those out of work.

The Washington area has one of the lowest jobless rates in the nation. But that doesn't mean the District is without unemployment problems. In Prince William County, a project is starting that its proponents hope will deal with unemployment and cushion the pain of spending cuts. They also believe that it could provide a better long-term solution for the unemployed than can be given by a subsidized public service job.

The program will use a mixture of private-sector personnel techniques, coupled with counseling and group therapy such as that used in Alcoholics Anonymous or Weight Watchers. Following a model tried out in other parts of the country, the program will focus on helping the jobless quickly find work in the private sector rather than on training or subsidizing jobs.

The county's new "job club" program has grown out of private and public cooperation. One section of the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, which is the main jobs and training program, aims to involve the private sector in "employment and training activities." Funds for the Private Sector Initiative Program, under Title VII of CETA, are made available to Private Industry Councils (PIC) sponsored by local government organizations.

Jack Rollison, who owns a tire company in Woodbridge, Va., is the chairman of the Prince William County PIC. He is also the enthusiastic originator of the new jobs plan.

"The administration will have to do something about unemployment" Rollison said. And he hopes that it will choose to keep, and perhaps strengthen Title VII. "It gives a government program a business flavor," he said, when businessmen and other nonpublic-sector employes are involved in the program through a PIC.

The county PIC approves about $200,000 of spending a year. It supports or plans to support four programs, which are in different stages of development. These include a training project, a youth employment scheme and an "on-the-job training" scheme where half of a new employe's wage is paid out of public funds for six months in the hope that he or she may be kept on afterwards.

The newest one is the "job club." It aims to help unemployed people find a job by teaching them how to look for one. With two to four weeks of doing nothing but discussing job hunting, staging practice interviews, calling potential employers as well as arranging and attending real interviews, participants are supposed to get very good at job hunting and finding.

Since the jobs are all in the private sector, and the course is short, the program works out very cheaply. A two-week program would cost about $400 a person, Rollison said. Some job placement programs can cost as much as $10,000 a year, he added, when they provide public-sector jobs for the unemployed.

A further reason why the job club is cheap is that participants in the program are encouraged to do for themselves much of the leg work involved in tracking down jobs, explained John R. Kirby, director of the Manpower Commission in Manassas. "We're trying to turn around and get the client to do some of the staff functions," he said.

At a time when the office is being forced, through lack of funds, to fire half of its professional staff, Kirby supports the setting up of the job club. "As far as I'm concerned, that's a good way of spending the small amount of money available," he said.

The PIC approval of funds for the program meant that a new position opened up in the office -- which, despite applications from some of those who will be forced to leave next month, has been filled by an outsider.Steve Sterb, who was hired for the job because of his experience, has worked on job clubs elsewhere. Ironically he was out of work himself for some months before the Manpower Commission took him on. Although there has been something of a boom in the setting up of job clubs as local and federal funds have been stretched tight, it has become less common for these clubs to hire outside consultants. Sterb had worked for one consultant, and hoped to set up on his own. But, as he admitted, it is much cheaper for the program sponsors to have "in-house" expertise than to look elsewhere.

The plan, as outlined by Sterb, depends heavily on psychological techniques to encourage the participants to succeed in seemingly obvious tasks, such as arriving on time for interviews, being presentable, stating what they think they can offer a particular employer and so one. Participants work in groups, and discuss each other's progress, and applaud or criticize when individuals perform well or badly.

Much is made of teaching unemployed clients how to use the telephone to make contact with a potential employer, even if no job is being advertised, and to arrange interviews. When phone calls are made, someone will listen in to review the job hunter's style.

The group is supposed to provide support when job hunters are frustrated and depressed: "It's very unlikely that everyone will experience failure at the same time," Sterb comments. At the beginning of the course everyone is supposed to get to know each other, and to talk about jobs and job hunting. Exercises or games are played to start people talking, if it does not happen naturally.

The program "does everything [to help people find a job] except hold someone's hand at the interview," Kirby said.

Thousands of people have now been through programs similar to this, labor department sources say. There is one in every state, and some states have more than one. The early results were said to be very good but, as Kirby points out, "the statistics have been pumped up, they're panning out now at 50 to 60 percent not 80 to 90 percent" of participants who find a job after the course.

No full studies have been done on the longer-term success of the programs, but Sterb quoted preliminary groups that have kept up the 50 percent to 60 percent jobholding rate.

Rollison believes that the public sector cannot solve the problem of unemployment by make-work jobs. He also hopes that, because of the input from business, a program such as the job club will enable those out of work or on welfare to find and get jobs that really are there for the taking. He acknowledged that the techniques sound simplistic or obvious, but quotes his own experience as evidence that people can learn some "tricks" that make it possible to find work.

"I've had people come in looking for work and acting as if I owe them a job," he says. "Small businessmen are like me, they're proud of their business. It's easy to get them talking about that by asking a few questions and appearing enthusiastic . . . by the time the interview's over, well . . ."

However, the program obviously can help only those who already have the skills necessary for the jobs, and it only will succeed to the extent that there are private-sector jobs available. Close to four-fifths of those county residents holding jobs are employed outside the county in other parts of the Washington metropolitan area, Kirby said. This makes it difficult for the Manpower Commission to lobby employers, and search out job opportunities in the county.

In the first year of the program, the commission hopes that about 250 persons will pass through it -- the equivalent of about a quarter of those who participate in all the county's CETA programs.

What if the participants still cannot find work after the job club?

The PIC also has approved funds for training projects, and a pilot training project now is under way at the Northern Virginia Community College in Woodbridge. The project is aimed at training those on welfare -- there are 1,300 families on the rolls in the county -- for clerical work. The pilot program is for an intensive course of 20 weeks. Instructor Elizabeth Collins in enthusiastic about the first group. All female, mostly divorced and with dependent children, they are eager to learn and, so far, have turned up on time for all their classes. They are ahead of schedule, Collins said, and some may start job hunting soon.