Early reaction to the findings of a study published earlier this week on employment trends in metropolitan Washington suggests there may be some confusion about the intended use of the document.

It is a tool; nothing more, nothing less. To regard it as an indictment of one jurisdiction or as an endorsement of another would be misreading its purpose and conclusions.

The analysis of employment trends over a 15-year span is part of a broad examination of the area's economy, which the Greater Washington Research Center undertook last year to determine the effects national and local changes are having. Reports previously published by the center examined the importance of federal purchases to the Washington economy and the growth of the high-technology sector here. Subsequent reports will focus on the international dimensions of the region's economy; the financial services sector, and the effects of economic changes in the labor force, with special emphasis on their impact on low-income residents in the District.

The findings of these reports will be summarized in the center's third state of the region report, tentatively titled "Washington's Changing Economy." Scheduled for release early next year, it will examine how the Washington economy is changing, how the area is adjusting to the changes and how the economic outlook can be improved, said Philip M. Dearborn, the center's vice president.

The periodic reports and the final document theoretically will eventually be regarded as valuable resources in the long-range planning programs developed by local governments. Until now, no local government agency, business organization or research group has undertaken a comparable research project on the local economy. Although Washington's business community and local government officials tend to agree that the area's nine jurisdictions comprise one economy, job-training programs, business attraction efforts, economic forecasts and development planning are conducted in a vacuum.

The ultimate value of the center's research is yet to be determined. In the meantime, however, it will likely be the subject of considerable debate over the next several weeks. The tenor of the debate and interpretations of key findings in the studies are certain to have an impact on policy decisions that will shape the region's economy.

At least one interpretation has already cast doubt on the reliability of the center's study of employment trends between 1967 and 1982. District officials promptly dismissed the report's findings, contending that they are out of date. At issue is a major finding by the author of the report that the District lost more than 11,000 jobs between 1977 and 1982 and that the relocation of jobs to the suburbs is continuing.

Nonsense, say D.C. officials. "We feel we're making a lot of real strides in the District" that wouldn't show up in the center's report, an official in the D.C. Department of Employment Services remarked. The center's study doesn't present an accurate picture, he added, because a recession occurred during the 1977-1982 period. Jobs in the District actually increased by more than 17,000 between 1977 and 1984, the official volunteered.

Indeed, incomplete data suggest that the District has had modest gains in job growth since the end of the period covered in the study, its author confirmed earlier in the week. Nonetheless, comparing numbers misses the point. The issue is employment trends, not raw numbers.

Even though the unemployment rate in the District has fallen to 8.6 percent -- a drop of more than 4 percentage points over the past year -- the suburbs continue to benefit from a shift of jobs from the city. The DES summary of area employment activity last month underscored the disparity in job growth. Job growth in metropolitan Washington between September 1983 and September 1984 was 3 percent, but area job growth was "limited by sluggish growth (0.5 percent)" in the District. Suburban job growth was 4.4 percent over the same period. "This is not surprising since suburban job growth surpasses job growth in urban and rural areas nationally," the DES labor summary said. The author of the center's jobs study makes the same point.

The District's economy has become more specialized, making it increasingly dependent on the federal government and the services sector. There is, on the other hand, more diversification in the economies of Fairfax and Montgomery counties, and Prince George's County to a lesser extent.

The research center's study, which documents that, has at least convinced business leaders that the disparity in job growth demands greater attention throughout the region. Economic disparity is not only unacceptable, but it also will "inevitably hurt our entire economy in the long run," declared R. Robert Linowes, a Washington lawyer and chairman of the research center.

Stimulating that kind of rationale seems to be the real value of the analysis of area employment trends.