With so much attention being devoted to an apparent labor shortage in Northern Virginia, a significant improvement in the District's jobs picture has gone largely unnoticed.

District residents have regained all jobs lost during the 1981-1982 recession, according to the D.C. Department of Employment Services. What's more, D.C. residents not only have regained those lost jobs, but also have gained an additional 18,600 jobs in the interim, the department noted in its monthly labor summary in May.

While the raw numbers are impressive, even more significant is the overall trend that the DES observed. The District "finally recovered" from the 1981-82 recession in 1984, the department said. Most of the cyclical unemployment "has probably been squeezed from the city's labor market," it continued.

That puts a slightly different twist on the labor picture, not just for the District, but for the suburbs as well. An unemployment rate of 8.1 percent in the District is still too high (compared to only 3.7 percent for the entire metropolitan Washington area), but a reversal of the city's jobless trend, which was fueled by the recession, certainly has to change some commonly held assumptions. That mythical large pool of unemployed D.C. residents may not be so big after all. It is substantial, nonetheless.

Whatever the size, the changes in its makeup have some implications for those suburban communities where labor shortages abound.

Theoretically, part of that shortage could be wiped out by matching unemployed D.C. residents with unfilled jobs in the suburbs. It has been demonstrated already that arranging transportation to many of those jobs is a major problem. Moreover, lower wage rates in the suburbs make certain jobs there less attractive than similar jobs in the District. Now, it appears that many of those jobs in the suburbs may go unfilled much longer because of a steady increase in jobs in the city.

The March unemployment figure reported for the District last month showed a decline of half a percentage point, to 8.1 percent. In absolute numbers, however, the number of jobless District residents fell just below the March 1981 level of 26,300, according to DES calculations.

Compared with estimates for March 1984, the employment situation of District residents continues to show "substantial" improvement, DES officials said. The jobless rate declined 1.5 percent over the year, reducing the number of unemployed by 4,200.

Between February and March of this year, in fact, nearly 3,000 jobs were added to the District's economy -- 2,000 in the private sector and 900 in government. At least 1,000 were added in the services sector and 600 in the retail trade area. There were, in fact, 13,100 more new jobs in the District in March 1985 than there were in March 1984.

Interestingly, growth in the District's federal work force increased slightly over the year, but the importance of the federal job base is diminishing gradually, according to the DES. The private sector, meanwhile, grew at a more rapid clip (3.2 percent) than the federal sector. The DES reports there are now 17,700 fewer federal jobs and 20,600 more private jobs in the District.

Improvement in the District's job picture notwithstanding, structural changes will be necessary to reduce the unemployment rate, as the DES suggests. Even though improvement in the District's employment situation has been documented by the DES, a more formal link between city and suburbs is vital, it seems, if area employment problems are ever going to be resolved.

In its latest area labor summary, the DES maintains that city residents "need to benefit from the rapid suburban job growth through expansion and refinements to the public transportation systems." Employers must contribute to the joint efforts of government to provide experience and training for the structurally unemployed, it added. Further, the federal government "must at least stabilize its local work force and the national economy must continue to expand" if improvement in local employment is to continue, the DES said.

First a Virginia Employment Commission official cited a major shortcoming in the area's transportation network, and now the D.C. Department of Employment Services advocates expansion and refinements to the public transportation systems. Others have yet to be heard on this issue, and it's about time for them to be.