In many ways a recent profile of metropolitan Washington's labor force serves as a useful explanation for much of the slowdown in the area's economy. Equally significant, some observations included in the profile by the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DES) may be even more useful in preparing employers and local officials for perhaps a decade of slow growth.

Two key factors, it seems, will largely determine the duration of slow growth or a shift to an accelerated rate: emerging demographic and work-force trends.

"The demographics of the 1990s indicate the labor shortages of the late 1980s are likely to continue through the next decade," officials in the department's labor market information and research division concluded.

In another observation based on recent trends, the same officials noted that slower growth in the area's labor supply "probably means that the number of new workers migrating from other areas of the country to live and work in the Washington area has also significantly slowed."

There's more, and it's just as sobering. "Slow labor force growth may also indirectly explain the falloff in the area's consumer demand for goods and services, because there were relatively fewer new workers-consumers being added to the economy," DES officials speculated.

These observations are based, of course, on trends that have evolved locally in recent years. Still, those trends are probably better understood when looked at in the context of what's occurring nationally. Here, metropolitan Washington's economy loses its heralded status of being unique. Key trends in population growth and work-force composition are as common here as they are in other sections of the country.

Consider the following from a recent publication by the Interstate Conference of Employment Security Agencies Inc. (ICESA), a Washington-based association representing state employment agencies. The national population and work force will grow more slowly than at any time since the 1930s, the ICESA noted last month in an assessment of future work-force trends.

"Slow growth rates will tend to slow down the nation's economic expansion and will shift the economy more toward income-sensitive products and services. Labor markets may tighten, forcing employers to use more capital-intensive production systems," the ICESA added.

Results of a survey conducted earlier in the year by the ICESA showed that 65 percent of the states thought a labor shortage would occur. "Almost all of the states now seeing a labor shortage expect it to continue to the year 2000," the ICESA said in its special report, "Work-force Trends: An assessment of the Future by Employment Security Agencies."

Similar to projections by the Bureau of Labor Statistics -- on which much of the ICESA findings are based -- trends examined in the assessment reflect what is likely to occur until the year 2000.

According to the ICESA, employment is projected to grow by 18 million from 1988 to the year 2000. This amount of growth, it adds, is only half the 30 percent rate of the 1976-1988 period and is confined almost entirely to the services-producing sectors.

In metropolitan Washington, where the services sector has become dominant, growth in jobs and employment are very much a part of the national trend. According to the DES, which closely follows labor market trends in all of metropolitan Washington, job creation has declined significantly since a steady rate of increase peaked at 6.8 percent in December 1964.

"The Washington area is now creating new jobs at a slower pace than the U.S. economy," the DES advised in a recent summary of labor market activity in the area.

From May 1989 to May 1990, the Washington area's job growth rate slowed to 1.5 percent -- half the gain that had been recorded at the end of a similar period a year earlier.

Still, the total number of jobs in the area continues to exceed the labor supply by almost 36,000. Again, that apparently isn't unique to metropolitan Washington. Fifty-seven percent of the states responding to the ICESA survey reported a general shortage of qualified workers.

The DES has every reason to warn that labor shortages which began to show up in the late 1980s are likely to continue through the next decade. And those reasons can be found in the same national demographic and work-force trends outlined in the ICESA report and discussed at length in projections by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The U.S. labor force grew by 2.6 percent annually from 1970 to 1980 but the rate fell substantially, to just 1.6 percentfrom 1980 to 1988, according to the bureau.

The rate of increase is expected to slow even further, to an annual level of 1.2 percent to the year 2000.

Not only is population growth slowing but dramatic changes in the work force already are beginning to develop as major trends.

With fewer young workers entering the work force, companies that have grown by adding large numbers of "flexible, lower-paid workers" will find them in short supply in the 1990s, says the ICESA.

In the meantime, almost two-thirds of the new entrants into the work force will be women. Minorities will account for 29 percent from now to the year 2000 -- twice their current share.

Significantly, the bureau observed last fall, "Many of America's young adults are unable to perform at a level very much above the lowest level of proficiency. This is true of all demographic groups but is particularly so for blacks and Hispanics. Such data heighten concerns about preparation for the more demanding jobs that clearly are continuing to emerge in the economy."

Having said all that, a final observation by the DES seems appropriate on this Labor Day: "The area needs to use this period of adjustment {to a slowdown in the economy and changes in demographics and the work-force} to prepare for the future."