E.C. Ernst Inc. has reported its first operating profit since 1977. The Washington-based electrical construction firm had a $352,000 operating profit for the fiscal year ended March 31 compared with an operating loss of $8.2 million last year.

Despite the increase in operating earnings, net income for the year declined from $5.1 million ($1.45 a share) last year to $3.01 million (83 cents). Net income this year reflected a net operating loss carry-forward of $1.5 million (41 cents) to offset federal income taxes.

For the fourth quarter, Ernst lost $2.5 million on contract income of $13.1 million compared with a loss of $8.9 million on contract income of $9.2 million for the same period last year.

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Joseph E. Griffin said that Ernst operations had recovered from the effects of the events that forced the 67-year-old industry leader into Chapter 11 bankruptcy nearly four years ago. Griffin cited an increase in cash position, an improved working capital position and a reduction in contract receivables as evidence of the operating turnaround.

In anticipation of leaving Chapter 11, the company established a $2 million accrual for estimated costs and expenses of administration of the Chapter 11 proceeding after March 31, 1982. This amount was charged against net income in fiscal 1982.

Wards Co. Inc. of Richmond reported earnings climbed to $288,000 (13 cents a share) from $278,000 (17 cents) for the first quarter. Revenues gained 42 percent, from $33.1 million last year to $47.1 this year, primarily because of new stores, the company said.