This is the work force known in auto industry circles for building one of the highest quality vehicles in the country.

These 700 workers--the entire second shift--were praised for low absenteeism and high spirits, stability and cameraderie.

Even after being told that on Jan. 29 they would lose their jobs, they worked furiously their last two weeks to turn out the best quality light trucks ever made at the Ford Motor Co. plant here.

But even good workers aren't immune to bad times. This work force, which for five to 13 years welded seams and built their dreams on the assembly line, will now stand together on the unemployment line.

"The company hesitated doing this for a long time," said Ford's Norfolk plant industrial relations manager, Curt Neal. "You don't want to lose a quality work force."

But the auto industry, facing its worst sales in 21 years, was unable to sell enough of the light trucks built in Norfolk to keep the second shift running.

The company, which had 2,500 mostly assembly line workers six years ago, last week dropped that number to 800, United Auto Workers union officials said. The plant was shut down all of last week because there was little demand for Ford products.

And in the Tidewater area where jobs are tight, there is little demand for the $20-per-hour, unskilled Ford workers, no matter how hard working they are.

"I was in a job making big money for a change," said Jean McNeil, an assembly line worker. "I went into debt to have a good living. I think there's a lot of them in there in the same predicament."

"I bought a mobile home. I also bought a piece of land, a brand new car a Ford ," McNeil said. "I'll have to cut back on things, get creditors to lower my payments."

"Homes, cars, everything's gone," one man muttered in the union hall where the newly jobless were learning about their unemployment benefits. "You don't have no choice but to hit the door."

Many explanations are given for the high quality work force: good labor-management relations, stable individuals, but, also, Ford paid about the highest wages in the area.

Some workers drove 140 miles a day from North Carolina just to work there, said James Voliva, president of UAW Local 919. Many of those workers will now be getting $138 a week in unemployment, about one-third of their salaries.

Carroll Logan, 28, had been earning $12 per hour on the assembly line. The best job he can probably get now is earning $6 per hour, said Logan, who has two children and an unemployed wife.

Cyneese Johnson, 28, took a job on the second shift nearly six years ago because she could make more money taping bumpers to be painted than she could earn as a substitute elementary schoolteacher.

"I felt this job offered me a comfortable lifestyle," said Johnson, garbed in a soft black leather blazer, wool slacks and gold chains. "I'm very concerned about the type of salary I'll be making." Johnson said at Ford she earned $21 per hour including benefits.

It is perhaps the high wages earned by auto workers that has most angered the public about high automobile prices. Many people who buy cars made by $21-per-hour workers earn considerably less themselves.

Ford and the UAW are now locked in negotiations to pare down future wages and benefits. Some of the workers at the Norfolk plant said they would have been willing to take some pay cuts, but not much.

"I would rather have taken a cut in benefits and have a secure job than have no cuts and no job," Johnson said.

Only about 70 of those laid off, such as electricians and pipe-fitters, were skilled, Voliva said. They had few problems getting jobs.

But the others will have tough going. Although the unemployment rate is only 6.7 percent in Tidewater, "the job market is as tight for the unskilled here as it is in Michigan," where the overall unemployment rate is much higher, said Claude Roberts, labor market analyst for the Virginia Employment Commission.

"A person who stands on an assembly line screwing in a bolt here and screwing in a bolt there--there's nothing for him."

The Norfolk Shipbuilding and Drydock Co., the largest private employer in the area, plans to expand by 400 jobs, Roberts said. But few of the Ford workers are skilled enough to fill them.

In addition, the jobless from other areas have heard that the unemployment rate is relatively low here and have been arriving to get work, Roberts said.

Virginia Beach tourism is booming and so are coal exporting and port activities. But the local construction industry has dropped from 21,000 jobs in 1973 to about 16,000 today, Roberts said.

Some analysts estimate the ripple effect on other local businesses caused by the Ford layoffs will result in 1,400 other people losing jobs, Roberts said. No other area firms have let go as many workers as Ford has, he said.

Many of the employes were expecting to receive supplemental unemployment benefits provided by a company and union fund, which would have increased their maximum benefits from $138 a week to about $300 a week, Voliva said.

But the fund has been nearly depleted by other layoffs around the country and only those who had worked more than 10 years were eligible, eliminating nearly all the laid-off second-shift workers.

"I'll be honest with you," Voliva said. "I don't know what these people are going to do."

Compounding that problem is the fear that employers may hesitate hiring Ford workers because they may be recalled, Voliva said. But he added that he doubts anyone would be recalled anytime soon.

The union has set up a community service committee to provide its laid-off members with "food, shelter, whatever they may need," Voliva said.

The union and the AFL-CIO six months ago set up a food bank "where people who are destitute can buy food for 10 cents a pound," Voliva said. The Salvation Army "has done wonders for our people here."

The 73-acre plant, which first turned out Model-T Fords in 1925, reached its peak of production in 1977 when 199,961 trucks were made. That figure slowly declined to 94,960 in 1980 and 92,413 last year, Ford's Neal said. The second shift was added on Nov. 3, 1976, because Ford couldn't keep up with the demand.

The plant has been closed off and on since about the middle of 1980, and the company cannot now predict the level of production for this year because no one knows how many days the plant will be open, Neal said.

The plant won't be shut down completely, Neal said. "We believe the economy is going to turn around. They will need the capacity of this location to make pick-up trucks."

The usually quiet union hall turned boisterous last week. Former middle class assembly line workers vented their anger by shouting threats against the president, society and Ford Motor Co.

Outside, clusters of sullen young men, fists thrust in their pockets or in the air, hurled epithets at no one in particular.

"From reading the Bible, it's hard to believe things can get much better," said 33-year-old Maxine Stanton, mother of three who nine days ago was permanently laid off from her $9 per hour job assembling bumpers at Ford. When things get this bad, the Bible says the end of the world is near, she said.

Acey Lee, 42, wearing a red, white and blue "Buy American" cap, blue jeans and a day-old growth of beard, said he is one of the lucky ones. As a pipefitter he got work in the Norfolk shipyards making $2 an hour less than he made at Ford.

"We just have to tighten up. I'm not really deep in debt," said Lee, sole supporter of two teen-agers and a wife with a heart ailment. He said the week-long vacations in the Carolinas to visit his mother-in-law will end, as will the weekend trips to nearby Busch Gardens two or three times a summer.

"You can't find anyplace in Tidewater that pays more than Ford Motor Co. does," Lee said.

But life won't be as good for Jeffrey Walden, 26, who is unskilled.

"I'll have to find out what's out there," Walden said. "Things are just tight out there for everybody. And the man in the White House ain't making it any better. I wish I could tell him that, 'cause he don't know. He just don't know."