In tracking employment trends in the area during the 1980s, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments uncovered a significant statistic about job growth in the District that probably warrants more attention.

A team of researchers at COG learned -- to no one's surprise, the council noted in a recent publication -- that 686,000 of the nearly 2 million jobs in the region in 1985 were in the District. The more surprising finding, according to Jay Langford, chief of planning and analysis in COG's department of metropolitan development and information services, is that there was "relatively modest growth" in the number of jobs in the city between 1980 and 1985, "despite construction of millions of square feet of office space."

"The anomaly could be explained by changes in the nature of the jobs available; some employers, such as law firms and lobbyists, for instance, may allow more space per employe," Langford continued. "The changing nature of the federal civilian work force between 1980 and 1985 also affects the employment structure in the District in ways ranging from 'privatization' of jobs to shrinking standards of space per employe."

This much is known, however. The District's share of jobs continues to shrink in what COG referred to in a recent publication as "The Booming '80s." The job statistics and Langford's observations tend to validate an argument that has been heard before: The boom in office construction in the District is no substitute for balanced economic growth. A construction boom is taking place in the suburbs as well. But the suburbs have balanced employment; the District doesn't.

Stephen S. Fuller, chairman of the department of urban and regional planning at George Washington University, recently recommended steps to achieve balanced employment and economic growth in the District. After concluding that the District's economy has been specialized historically in high-skilled, high-salaried jobs, Fuller said a greater effort should be made to provide labor resources that are "well trained, productive and capable of adjusting to changing skill requirements." Fuller believes, however, that the focus of economic development efforts in the District should be in strengthening its "natural" areas of specialization -- the federal government, international activities and the services and tourism sectors."

Langford's observations about the changing nature of the federal civilian work force and some segments of the professional services sector suggest there is a need in the District to develop a more diversified employment base.

One local official wondered after reading Fuller's recommendations in a report for the Greater Washington Research Center how it is possible to square them with suggestions calling for more labor-intensive jobs in the District. The official specifically cited a study done earlier in the year for the Washington-Baltimore Regional Association.

L. Clinton Hoch, a nationally known site location expert, suggested in the study thatThe boom in office construction in the District is no substitute for balanced economic growth. certain industries could benefit from the synergies and locational advantages of the Washington-Baltimore common market. Hoch concluded that merchant wholesaling -- one of four growth industries he recommended -- could generate substantial benefits, especially in the central cities in the region.

Merchant wholesalers, Hoch explained, sort, assemble, grade and store goods. They extend credit and resell goods to retailers and to professional, commercial, farm, governmental and institutional users.

Hoch strongly implied that a site in one of the two central cities in the region would be a boost to minorities who have suffered most from high unemployment. "Minority groups, in particular, have not been participating in the growth of the region's new employment opportunities in the suburbs," he observed.

Nor are they likely to participate very much in the growth of employment in the federal government or the professional services sector in the District.

Interestingly, wholesale trade was one of five employment sectors that were "losers" between 1980 and 1985, a period during which the District's employment growth was "notable for its unevenness," according to Fuller.

Unevenness may be an understatement. Job growth in the District increased only 3 percent in the District between 1980 and 1985. During the same five-year period, jobs increased 16.2 percent in Montgomery County, 18.1 percent in Fairfax County and 13.3 percent in Prince George's County. Loudoun County had the biggest increase of any area jurisdiction, but its base was much smaller at the outset. Loudoun County had a percentage gain of 34.9 percent, but it added only 6,100 jobs compared with 20,100 in the District, 39,000 in Fairfax, 49,000 in Montgomery and 32,500 in Prince George's.

The main point, however, is that only modest job growth, if not unevenness, will likely continue in the District, unless significant steps are taken to strengthen selective employment sectors. Considerable research will be be required to determine where emphasis should be placed.

While Washington's economy may be driven by government, services and tourism, the record of recent years shows that those sectors haven't been quite enough to offset the shift in jobs from the District and the shrinkage that mark the booming '80s.