BOSTON, JULY 25 -- Digital Equipment Corp. reported a $256.7 million fourth-quarter loss today, the computer giant's first ever quarterly loss and a reflection of a voluntary severance program under which 3,000 employees left over the last 12 months.

Mark Steinkrauss, director of investor relations, said Digital's restructuring program included plans to cut another 5,000 to 6,000 people in the coming months through voluntary severance and attrition.

The loss by one of New England's most important companies provided further evidence of economic trouble in the region, which grew quickly during the boom years of the 1980s but tumbled into recession because of the slumping high-technology, financial services and real estate industries.

But some securities analysts who follow Digital saw the loss as a piece of good news because it showed the company was aggressively trying to cut expenses while remaining competitive.

"I'm encouraged that they decided to bite the bullet and do it,'' said Marc Schulman, an analyst with UBS Securities Inc. in New York. ''Things are as bad as they're going to get, and now they're going to get better."

Added Steinkrauss: "The company knew exactly what it was doing ... in light of what it needs to do in terms of reducing its cost structure."

Still, the news was not well received on Wall Street. Digital stock fell 62 1/2 cents a share to $74.87 1/2 in New York Stock Exchange trading.

Employee retraining, separation incentives and other costs associated with the Maynard, Mass.-based company's restructuring program cost $400 million in the fourth quarter.

Senior Vice President John F. Smith also attributed the computer maker's loss to "the continuing economic slowdown that affects ... {the} U.S. and several other markets."

For its fourth quarter ended June 30, the company said it lost $2.11 a share on revenue of $3.4 billion, compared with earnings of $313.2 million ($2.51 a share) on revenue of $3.5 billion for the same quarter in 1989.

Profits for the full fiscal year after absorbing pretax charges of $550 million fell to $74.4 million (59 cents), from $1.1 billion ($8.45) in 1989. Digital's sales were up 2 percent to $12.9 billion from $12.7 billion last year.

"Increasing profit is the most important challenge the company faces," Smith said in a statement. "We are not satisfied with our operating results and will continue focusing on revenue growth and reducing our cost structure."

He said the company was reducing costs by identifying positions that are no longer needed, either because of changes in technology or business practices.

"We expect to begin receiving ongoing cost savings from these actions in the current year, and the full impact will be realized by next fiscal year," Smith said in the statement.

Schulman, who predicted Digital's turnaround would take about two years, said many of the bigger computer companies are scrambling to update product lines and keep up with overseas competitors.

"Given their size, it's going to take a while," he said. "The underlying problem is the shift in the structure of demand toward work stations and PCs {personal computers} -- areas which do not represent a high percentage of their revenue."

Companies are also beginning to scale back from the explosive expansion of the early 1980s, when the industry boomed in California's Silicon Valley and along Massachusetts's Route 128.