Northern Virginia, with all of its affluence, faces a potential economic problem that could result from what has been described as a labor shortage. In the wake of renewed reports of the growing labor shortage, however, recent statements by members of the public and private sectors indicate that they don't understand the true significance of the problem.

Northern Virginia's unemployment rate continues to settle into a comfortable range of 2 to 3 percent compared with 7.3 percent nationally, 3.7 percent in metropolitan Washington and 8.1 percent in the District. Employers in Northern Virginia are unable, however, to fill a minimum 3,200 job openings that exist on any given day, according to the Virginia Employment Commission.

Population and jobs continue to grow in Northern Virginia, but the labor pool for construction and nonprofessional service jobs has shrunk to a disturbing level.

Almost a year ago, an official in the D.C. Department of Employment Services predicted labor shortages in some suburban Washington communities. Even then, the unemployment rates in some of those jurisdictions were in the 3 percent range, according to the department, which collects and analyzes employment data for the Washington Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area.

The author of a study that was conducted for the Greater Washington Research Center last year noted that geographic patterns of employment trends in the Washington area contained significant public policy implications for business and government leaders. Maintaining a strong metropolitan economy requires a recognition of the strengths and weaknesses of each jurisdiction, the study's author observed at the time.

But with the District's unemployment rate still above 8 percent and the Virginia Employment Commission confirming recent reports of a labor shortage in Northern Virginia, business and government leaders don't seem to see the public policy implications. Instead, Northern Virginia leaders seem perplexed because unemployed D.C. residents aren't filling vacant jobs on the other side of the Potomac.

More than 10,000 job openings in Northern Virginia were listed by the Virginia Employment Commission between July 1, 1984, and April 30, 1985, but only a small percentage of those jobs were filled, according to the agency. More than 2,400 clerical jobs and more than 1,000 sales positions went mostly unfilled. During the same nine-month period, employers in Northern Virginia had little success in filling more than 1,800 construction jobs. In the services sector, hotels, retail stores and fast-food restaurants continue to experience difficulty in filling nonmanagement jobs.

The problems posed by this apparent gap in employment and the economy of Northern Virginia have been largely overlooked because of the region's rapid growth in recent years as a commercial and high-technology center. Affluence and a highly skilled work force notwithstanding, labor problems exist, and they won't be solved by transporting workers to Northern Virginia from Enfield, N.C., some 225 miles to the south. They won't be solved by patronizing, stereotypical and racist comments about unemployed D.C. residents. Nor will they be resolved by the shortsighted view of the Fairfax County official who found it necessary to offer assurances that D.C. residents are "free to come over here" to work.

Getting more D.C. residents to work in Northern Virginia would help, but it won't solve Northern Virginia's labor-shortage problem. That requires a more enlightened approach to determining why the problem exists in the first place.

The reasons are obvious. The lack of adequate transportation, for example, is as much a barrier to some Virginia residents as it is to persons living in the District.

"We have many Northern Virginia residents who qualify for jobs but have no transportation," said Charles Greene, the employment commission's assistant manager for Northern Virginia. "There is literally no public transportation to western Fairfax County and Prince William County."

Sharp differences in wage scales is another area that deserves attention. Most nonunion wages are higher in the District than in Northern Virginia. "That's one of our problems," Greene observed candidly. "When you consider the fact that a cleaning person can make $6 an hour cleaning a hotel in Washington and make only $4 in Northern Virginia doing the same job, that $2 difference is a major difference, given the cost of living."

"To compound the problem, we have very little low-income housing" in Northern Virginia, Greene added. "That's a problem. You can get a job here for $5 an hour, but you can't afford to live here for $5 an hour."

What are the implications for Northern Virginia?

"Slow growth," said Greene. "We know that construction will be slowed down tremendously" because of the labor shortage. It also could slow the growth of the fast-food industry and other service-sector groups such as hotels, he added. Ultimately, some businesses "may consider locating in other areas," Greene believes.

For Fairfax County officials and others to say that they can't do anything about matching more unemployed D.C. residents to unfilled jobs in Northern Virginia misses the point entirely.