Unemployment may be rampant in the domestic auto industry, but a skilled mechanic still is hard to find.

That disturbing lesson is being learned by thousands of auto service managers across the country, including those at Pohanka Oldsmobile Inc. in Marlow Heights.

The Pohanka people have been looking for 10 highly skilled mechanics for several weeks. They've tried everything, even placing ads in The Detroit News in hopes of skimming cream off the top of an industry and region that have soured economically.

"But we still didn't get anybody that good," said Rick Jenkins, Pohanka's assistant service manager. "We got about 20 resumes, but only one or two of those look like possibilities. We got a lot of telephone calls, but mostly from people who only think they are mechanics," Jenkins said.

The problem is a skills gap, one that has grown wider over the past 20 years as cars have become more complicated, says Rollance E. Olson, president of the aftermarket division of Raymark Inc. (formerly Raybestos-Manhattan Inc.) in Trumbull, Conn. Raymark is a multinational producer and provider of automotive parts and services, as well as a manufacturer of communications equipment.

"The car has become an extremely complex machine," Olson said. "Everyone from the parts manufacturer to the service establishment is dealing with cars equipped with electronic ignitions, catalytic converters, power braking systems, turbo chargers, fuel injection, diesel systems, and front-wheel drive.

"If you're going to get in and tune the car up and really understand it, you've got to realize that you have a small computer under the hood. Service technicians must master new generations of microprocessor-based engine controls" to be rated as skilled mechanics nowadays, Olson said. ut he said there aren't many institutions around that are capable of, or willing to provide the needed training. As a result, there are many unemployed auto workers, but few who have the skills required to take available jobs at places like Pohanka Olds, Olson said.

On-the-job training is a possible solution to the skills gap problem. For example, Pohanka has "some apprentices" who are becoming skilled mechanics, said Mike Sopjack, the company's parts and service manager. But Sopjack said customers are holding on to their cars longer and are bringing them in for repairs more often, all of which is creating a service business boom that can't be met by on-the-job training.

"We tried to find certified mechanics in the Washington area, but we didn't have much luck," Sopjack said. "It's not because there aren't any good mechanics in Washington. It's just that the good ones here are all working. These people are in demand."

Pohanka and other service groups in need of skilled workers often favor mechanics who have been tested and certified by Washington-based National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (NIASE). The institute is directed by a 36-member board that includes auto dealer representatives, mechanics, officials from the auto parts and service industry, and government officials. NIASE has been testing and certifying mechanics for competence in consumer vehicle repairs for 10 years.

As of 1980, according to latest available NIASE numbers, the United States had 947,987 mechanics involved in all kinds of automotive repair work. Of that number, 636,097 were employed in consumer service, and of those, 529,867 actually were involved in hands-on work in the diagnosis and repair of consumer-owned vehicles.

Of the mechanics doing actual hands-on work, only 264,643 were regarded as "test-ready," that is, certified or eligible for certification under NIASE standards.

Locally, the 1980 figures looked liked this: The District of Columbia had 1,081 mechanics in diagnostic and repair service on consumer vehicles. Of that number, according to NIASE's figures, only 266 of the District's mechanics were test-ready. Virginia had 11,741 consumer vehicle mechanics, 5,870 of whom were test-ready; and Maryland had 9,709, about 4,850 of whom were NIASE-certified or were eligible for certification.

Other auto mechanics are "factory certified" -- specifically qualified to work on cars produced by a particular manufacturer. But service managers say these mechanics often are hard to woo away from their present employers.

At Pohanka, Jenkins and Sopjack say they are considering going to Detroit to do on-the-spot interviews with job candidates. "A lot of these guys have been burned by people saying they had available jobs that weren't there. They spent money to go somewhere only to find out that they had been taken," said Jenkins. He said doing the interviews in person in Detroit may eliminate some of that skepticism.

Sopjack said the company's Detroit advertising strategy worked once, back in April when Pohanka netted 20-year-old Joseph Neiman, of Capac, Mich., 40 miles north of Detroit.

Neiman, who worked for a Chevrolet-Oldsmobile dealer in Detroit, said he was laid off for several months last year and was on the verge of more unemployment this year. People are holding their cars longer in Detroit, but the skilled and neophyte mechanics there tend to fix their own cars, as well as their neighbors' cars, he said.

Neiman said the Pohanka offer was attractive because "the work was steady" and because he could afford to move. He has no wife or children, and Pohanka, like other service outfits, isn't in the business of paying relocation fees.

However, the company pays its professional mechanics about $15 an hour, plus medical benefits, six weeks' vacation after one years' work and six annual holidays. That may not be as good as the average $20-an-hour (including benefits) paid to assembly line auto workers in Detroit. But, as Neiman said, the work is steady.

As of last Friday, Jenkins said his company still was looking for 10 good people. "This is not a joke," he said, adding that the company needed Oldsmobile passenger car mechanics and people who can diagnose and treat the ills of light duty trucks and vans.

If you're interested, Jenkins said you can give him a call at (301) 423-1100, or write to him at Pohanka Olds, 4601 St. Barnabas Rd., Marlow Heights, Md., 20031.

Only qualified candidates need apply, Jenkins said.