The unemployment rate for District residents jumped sharply in May, from 5.8 percent to 6.2 percent, and the jobless rate for the entire metropolitan area also rose in what analysts said was in part an indication of a softening economy.

Despite the increase, the Washington-area unemployment rate is among the lowest in the nation for a major metropolitan area. The jobless rate for the suburbs rose in May -- but to only 2.2 percent, a rate still low enough to indicate that nearly everyone who seeks a suburban job can find one.

In addition to the economic slowdown, an influx of college graduates looking for work also helped explain the rise in metro area joblessness to 2.7 percent from 2.5 percent, according to the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DES), which prepared the report. Unlike the national unemployment figures, those for the area are not adjusted for seasonal variations and the reports lag a month behind the national statistics.

There was little disagreement that further unemployment increases may be on the way. Yesterday's figures were calculated before Garfinckel's Inc. filed for bankruptcy protection last month and said it would lay off nearly 900 workers over the summer.

"New England turned soft and now it's coming down the East Coast," said Richard Groner, chief of labor market information for the DES. "It's beginning to look like the early 1980s, before the last recession."

Weakness was apparent in selected industries, such as construction and retail. There were nearly 7,000 fewer construction jobs last May than there were in May 1989, for instance. Jobs also declined compared with last May in the manufacturing sector, but rose in the transportation, wholesale-retail trade, finance, service and governmental sectors.

When one sector slows down, the companies that do business with it also slow down. J.H. Burton & Sons, an Olney landscaping firm, recently laid off between 20 and 30 employees from its 80- to 100-person work force as part of a restructuring designed to reduce dependence on the building industry and other commercial customers.

The layoffs were "from management all the way down to the laborers," said president and owner Mary Ellen DeFriece, whose family has owned the company for three generations. "When you scale down a whole department, you don't need an accounts-receivable manager to handle the {billing} flow, for instance." Many of those laid off have found work elsewhere, she added.

The figures for the area -- they include two separate surveys, one of households and the other of employers -- also are used by the federal government in its calculation of the nation's unemployment rate. They are supplied by the District, Maryland and Virginia employment departments and released by the District. Like the national figures, these statistics only record as jobless those who are actively seeking work. The national unemployment rate comparable to the area's 2.7 percent figure is 5 percent.

Altogether, there were 5,000 more unemployed persons in the area in May -- 60,900 in all -- than there were in April. Because the total labor pool grew during the year, there also were 12,100 more people with jobs, for total employment of 2,160,400.

The rise in unemployment in the District, which is more sensitive to economic changes because its work force is smaller than the ones in the suburbs, came partly because area college students and graduates came home and began looking for work, Groner said. Fewer than 800 of the 2,000 persons added to the labor force in May found work, he said.