If there is one business that most businesses passionately want to avoid, it is day care.

The thought of problems with insurance and liability, teary toddlers, staffing and the inevitable government red tape is enough to scare off even the most liberal-minded and far-seeing employers.

But increasingly, societal change is being shaped by the realities of the marketplace in the metropolitan Washington area.

Employers face unemployment rates that hover around 3 percent and lower in some suburban areas and an existing work force that has a multitude of career options.

At the same time, commercial developers continue to search for innovative ways to attract tenants to fill millions of square feet of vacant office space.

In a growing number of cases, day care -- though there continues to be a shortage of it -- has become a drawing card and a self-interested solution to some of these problems.

William Cripe, director of human resources for the Milton Co., a residential homebuilder based in McLean, for example, is a day care convert.

"With almost zero unemployment in Washington and with most benefits really being the same, the only thing you have to offer are the extra niceties," said Cripe. "It's a selling point."

What has sold Milton and many other local employers on day care is the consortium, or cooperative, approach that requires a minimum of involvement and a maximum of benefit for employers.

The basic consortium model simply requires companies to make tax-deductible contributions for the building and managing of an independent day care center.

In return, they get a reserved space for their contribution that their employes, who pay tuition, may use. They also have the opportunity to renew their reservation in following years.

The center is planned and operated by a professional day care provider as well as a board of parents. Spaces not reserved by businesses are open to the public.

One of the best examples of how companies in the sprawling office parks of Maryland and Virginia are embracing consortium-backed day care is the Tysons Corner Play & Learn Children's Center, which will open at the end of next month.

A offspring of the Tysons Transportation Association, or TYTRAN, the center is almost wholly underwritten by 22 companies in the area as well as the developer of Tysons Pond, the office complex in which the center is housed.

With some prodding from Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), the all-male TYTRAN board learned the ABCs of day care: Companies can save from $2 to $20 on every dollar spent for child care because of tax benefits, reduced absenteeism and turnover, higher productivity, better worker morale and better recruitment.

"There was not an enthusiastic outburst for the proposition, unless you stretch a point on how it affects traffic patterns," said Earle Williams, president and chief executive officer of BDM International Inc., McLean.

But after a $12,500 study, businesses learned that Tysons Corner lacked 800 day care spaces to provide for 32,000 workers in 620 companies.

Within two months, TYTRAN solicited $1,500 for each reserved space -- almost $100,000 -- that has gone toward building and equipping the center.

BDM took 13 reservations, representing 1 percent of its employe population in Washington.

"My only thought about day care before was to deny it was my responsibility," said Williams. "I wanted no part of it."

But he came to realize that the day care problem would be a growing one, particularly in the Washington area, which has the nation's highest percentage of working women and 77 percent of those with school-age children work. Almost half of his work force is female.

The National Automobile Dealers Association, also in the Tysons area, has become another cheerleader for consortium day care. Frank McCarthy, executive vice president of NADA and president of the incorporating board for the Tysons day care center, said his organization "would be willing to get back in the business to start another one."

Clearly, a collective change in corporate mindset is the quickest way to get new day care centers off the ground. But there are several other essentials in convincing businesses that the fuss and muss of day care can be taken out of the boardroom.

The key element behind the consortium approach is an organizer and facilitator such as PAL Corporate Child Care Inc., a consulting and management firm in Silver Spring that works at getting business and day care together. From selling the idea to the board to hiring the staff that will change diapers, child care companies such as PAL are day care evangelists trying to persuade businesses that cooperative day care works.

For Cheri L. Sheridan, the 31-year-old president of PAL, the fight to persuade not only corporations, but parents, that nonprofit, licensed day care should be the preferred option has not always been an easy battle, although the idea is beginning to pick up momentum.

The competition in the Washington area is unlicensed family baby sitters -- the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments reports that 85 percent of families use family day care homes, where usually a woman takes care of five or fewer children.

"People research buying a VCR but will leave their child with the first person who answers an ad," said Sheridan, who added that unlicensed baby sitters are sometimes paid as little as $45 a week.

Similarly, some corporations have "sky suites at the Capital Center, but think someone else should subsidize day care."

Also, the economics of building, staffing and operating a day care center are challenging.

Opening a new day care center within an office building -- at the rear of the building's ground floor with a separate entrance and play area -- costs at least $300,000.

It's a labor intensive business with high turnover. The major need is for infant and after-school care, but strict government regulations run up the costs.

Keeping paid enrollment up is important because many of the businesses that get involved expect a self-sustaining operation that is not dependent on their continuing support.

At PAL's Metro East day care center in Landover, an enrollment of 57 is the break-even point, but the center is tottering on the brink at 56, according to Philip Braswell, the parent president of Metro East.

Metro East was PAL's first venture, largely launched by Rouse & Associates, a commercial developer that has seven buildings in the Metro East Business Community office park. Unlike Tysons, corporate support has not been as organized or generous, save for a few big givers.

Hence, the importance of what Sheridan calls the "big fish."

In some cases, it has been Wolf, a member of the House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families, who has done corporate arm twisting and consciousness raising to get several centers under way.

"I think you can make a valid argument that business should play a role, " said Wolf. "The business community in this area has been sensitized and I like to think we explained it to them."

But most critical to the process -- and often the most cooperative -- are real estate developers, who often view day care as a marketing tool or have incorporated it as part of their operating philosophy.

A day care center for 87 children in Crystal City was an idea conceived by local working parents and was brought to reality six months ago on South Eads Street by Wolf and the Charles E. Smith Cos., which developed Crystal City.

Charles E. Smith Cos. spent about $200,000 for retrofitting the space, start-up funding and rent waivers.

The center's $400,000 operating budget will come from tuition and corporate support from companies such as USAir, Rockwell and the government's Patent and Trade Office.

Scott Sterling, associate counsel for public affairs for the Charles E. Smith Cos. -- also known as "Dr. Day Care" around the office -- said the developer realized Crystal City had matured and offered residents and workers a variety of amenities.

"But one of the things missing was a day care facility," Sterling said.

Thomas Gallagher, a partner in the development firm of Edmondson & Gallagher, said he wants a day care center in the 400-unit complex his firm is rehabilitating in Anacostia to attract two-worker households looking for something special for their children.

"I think they are more responsive tenants," said Gallagher, who has hired Sheridan to do a feasibility study. "On-site day care also is a significant factor in a person's decision to locate. How do we convince someone who wants to move to Prince George's County to stay in the District?"

Chuck Lapine, partner and vice president of leasing for Petrie, Dierman & Partners, a McLean developer, hopes Montgomery County will consider day care in City Place, a downtown Silver Spring mixed use project, as a required amenity.

"We thought day care was an evident social need where we could make our money work better," Lapine said.

The Tysons Pond facility was paid for, in part, by the Westerra Development Corp., San Diego.

"Everyone can offer rent concessions and parking, but not everybody can provide day care within their own project," said Emrys Black, Westerra vice president.

Sheridan said the company gave about $200,000 concessions.

Rouse & Associates is about to sponsor its second center at Fair Oaks Corporate Center, which will have space for 74 children and open in January 1988.

The consortium model will be used and businesses can reserve spaces for $1,000.

"Most developers think there will be kids riding up and down the elevators and big wheels in the lobby," said Garald Barber, a Rouse & Associates representative.

Rouse also hopes to back another center at Tysons Corner.

Yet another developer, Henry A. Long & Co., is funding a feasibility study for the Westfields Corporate Center along Route 28 in western Fairfax County. Wolf said companies in the Reston area are doing similar studies.

A more unusual approach is being taken by NYMA Inc., a Greenbelt computer software and services firm with 175 employes.

When the company becomes a major tenant in a new building in January 1989 it hopes to open an infant care center for its employes. It will provide the space and furnish the facility, but will turn its operation over to PAL and a board of parents.

"The type of people we are trying to attract are two to five years out of college and they are the type who want children," said Peter Belford, NYMA executive vice president.

Already, the company has six pregnant employes or spouses of employes.

Though there are many routes for businesses to take in supporting day care, devotees are convinced that work and child's play can be meshed.

"I think it's terrific people can look out of their offices and see children playing," said Claiborn M. Carr III, a regional partner with Rouse & Associates. "Life is more than sitting in front of a cathode ray tube.