He might not know it on his fourth day on the job, but sales clerk Jason M. Zotos was one of the lucky ones.

Dressed in a loose-fitting shirt, Zotos, 19, appeared to be right at home on the sales floor of Urban Outfitters, a clothing retailer in Georgetown. But Zotos is one of a small number of Washington-area youths who were successful in snaring a summer job this season.

"It took me about 2 1/2 weeks to get a job, which was pretty good for not having any experience," said Zotos, a college freshman from the University of Wisconsin who is in the area for the summer. He found his part-time job after five other employers turned him down. "Most places are not looking for workers."

Traditionally, Washington has been a mecca for students looking for jobs in the public sector. Besides minimum-wage jobs such as those offered by the D.C. Summer Youth Employment Program, the federal government offers summer positions at various agencies, and jobs as pages on Capitol Hill continue to be coveted.

But this year, young people are finding slimmer pickings and tougher competition in the local, private job market than in the past. Some 352,000 in the 16- to 24-year-old age bracket are either employed in the metropolitan area or are looking for work, according to the D.C. Department of Employment Services. Most first-time employees earn between $4.75 and $8 an hour as summer help, according to area employers.

Slowing sales at retail outlets and restaurants have hamstrung many local employers who typically hire school-aged workers to flip burgers, sell clothes or keep the books. Some companies have been forced to postpone hiring until economic conditions improve.

"More employers are expecting a little bit of a {hiring} decline," said Lise Kolbye, area manager for Manpower Inc., a temporary-work agency that annually places some 10,000 student-aged clerical workers in the region. "This year has seen a leveling off in jobs," she said, even though "we're getting more applications this year."

The number of retail, service and food-industry jobs in the District has grown 2 percent to 3 percent in the last year, a growth rate that is slower than in previous years, according to the D.C. Department of Employment Services.

Unemployment for young people aged 16 to 24 in the metro area settled at 7.1 percent in 1989. For all age groups, the area's unemployment rate is 2.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The seemingly healthy overall job picture masks a weak spot in the local economy for businesses that hire teenagers and students. Clothing stores along Georgetown's M Street and in Alexandria's Old Town report sales have fallen since last winter, diminishing the number of jobs available for summer job seekers.

"Retail is going down. It's the worst," said Gee Mutlu, manager of one of three Benetton clothing stores in Georgetown. "I don't hire at all."

Mutlu said she has cut the staff at her store from nine workers last year to four, following a "disastrous" winter slowdown.

"For now we're hiring less because of business," said Francis J. Bundu, manager of the two-story Burger King on M Street in Georgetown. Sales in the first two weeks of June were down about 6 percent compared with the same period last year, Bundu said. Normally, 10 summer workers are added to the store's 20-person staff, but Bundu is postponing some hiring even though job applications are up.

Another sign of a cooling summer job climate appears in the number of newspaper help-wanted classified ads. Linage of these ads sold in The Washington Post has fallen for two consecutive years from a record high in 1987. For May, such ad sales were down 24 percent from the same period last year, said a Washington Post spokesman.

Large employers and job service agencies also report restricted hiring and an increasing number of applicants.

Hiring is down at Peoples Drug Stores, which employs about 6,700 workers in 167 local stores. Safeway Stores,which employs 8,000 people in 100 stores, and Giant Food, which has more than 20,000 workers on its payroll, are looking more for skilled, experienced workers.

"Summer hires have decreased quite a bit from the last few years," said Redon T. Forest, a spokesman for Peoples.

Still, more college and high school students are looking for work. "Our application traffic has increased," Forest said. "We're not really sure why, but the speculation is that there are fewer government-subsidized jobs around."

But not everyone is cutting back. Management at community swimming pools in the District and Prince George's and Montgomery counties said they could use dozens more qualified life guards and pool attendants. But while those jobs are summer favorites, pool managers said few youths are willing to devote the time to be certified for them -- especially since the pay is at the low end of the scale.

The lack of qualified applicants also is slowing hiring at Safeway, said spokesman Lawrence Johnson.

"The applicant flow has certainly increased," Johnson said. "But we're looking for certain kinds of experienced people and that number is certainly less."

The message from local school officials is the same. Jobs for skilled applicants are available in clerical and internship positions, but hiring in general is limited.

"They {employers} want students to be computer-literate," said Carolyn Thomas, a career adviser at Woodson High School in Northeast D.C. "They want them to have good communication skills."

Job placements have fallen from about 25 students a month last year to 15 this year at McKinley High School, also in Northeast, said student counselor Janice Tucker. The shrinking number of students finding jobs has prompted school officials to meet with local employers to find out what educators can do to reverse the trend, Tucker said.

However, local public programs are there for students who will take minimum-wage work. The D.C. Summer Youth Employment Program, in its sixth year of promising to place every 14- to 21-year-old District resident, expects to repeat last year's performance and register 18,000 young people this summer, said Daryl G. Hardy, associate director for D.C. youth employment programs.

"We have been relatively successful, when the young people have the requisite skills, of placing them in the private sector," Hardy said.