The Greater Washington Board of Trade's recent decision to resume an active role in the search for new business and investment in the region is a step in the right direction at a time when uncertainty about the area's economy appears to be on the rise. The board of trade understands better than most what it will take to stimulate a "private-sector-led economy that faces a down cycle."

Thus, as part of a major shift of emphasis in its goals for the next three years, the board -- in effect, a regional chamber of commerce -- has established economic development as its priority, earmarking $1.2 million -- 40 percent of its resources -- for a business marketing and attraction program. The board plans to conduct targeted marketing missions to at least five U.S. cities over the next several months. The first of these missions is scheduled next month in New York, where invitations have been sent to 500 corporate and association executives.

This new thrust -- really one that puts the board back in its familiar role of spearheading marketing and business attraction efforts in the Washington area -- is part of a reorganization that was announced last week.

"This refocusing of the board's mission, work program and structure recognizes the board must use its limited resources more effectively and direct them at improving the profitability of our businesses in this region," William B. Wrench, president of the organization, said in a prepared statement.

Still, the board of trade seems to have taken a rather curious route in arriving at its decision to suspend its activities in certain areas that have a direct bearing on the local economy. It has decided, for example, to suspend its involvement in labor force development and affordable housing activities in 1991. What's more, the board said, its work in those areas "should be carefully evaluated as the detailed 1992 operating plan is assembled."

The group certainly has a point in putting a sharper focus on its activities. But labor-force development and affordable housing are as essential to a vibrant economy as new business and investments.

"If the {region's} economy is to continue strong, the area will have to attract and house the additional workers that will be required," the Greater Washington Research Center concluded in a recent study, by senior associate George Grier. No one challenges Grier's conclusion in the study, "Jobs and Housing: The Dual Crisis." In fact, most business leaders agree that the two are connected and that the health of the economy depends on more workers being added to the labor force and the availability of more affordable housing.

Meanwhile, as recently as four months ago, the board of trade reported there was still strong interest among national and international firms in relocating to the Washington area. Partly in response to that, the board says it will increase its active list of business prospects from 150 firms to a minimum of 250, representing additional demand for 8 million square feet of commercial space and hundreds of new jobs for the local economy. Besides sponsoring marketing trips to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and the New England area, the board plans to renew its Washington ExecuTour program, hosting a minimum of 30 business prospects and consultants.

Let's assume, then, that the board will get a fair number of companies to invest in the area, either through relocation or expanding divisions that already are here. Where will these firms find enough employees in a shrinking labor force? And what if they decide to transfer workers here or recruit them from areas outside the Washington region? Would there be enough affordable housing for them? Indeed, will there be enough affordable housing for the people who are expected to fill the 25,000 to 30,000 new jobs that are expected to be added annually to the economy through 1995?

Richard Groner, director of labor market information and research at the D.C. Department of Employment Services, made a telling observation recently on the area's labor supply.

"The area's unemployment rate is still so low {3.2 percent} it indicates we don't have an abundance of workers out there," said Groner, who warned of thepossibility of a labor shortage long before the effects of the slowdown began to be felt. "That bothers me more than job growth," said Groner. "We just don't have an influx of new workers."

Help-wanted ads in recent Sunday editions of The Washington Post tend to support that notion, generally shared by labor market experts and demographers. Scattered reports of layoffs in a soft economy notwithstanding, employers continue to have difficulty filling hundreds of jobs in the area. At least 50 pages of help-wanted ads in The Post each of the past three Sundays attest to that. Engineers and health-care professionals apparently are as difficult to find as salespersons, secretaries, accountants and people with experience in banking.

A slowdown in the economy and budget constraints obviously have caused leaders of the board of trade to streamline the organization's operations. And it may be that it can better deploy its resources by suspending plans to support certain activities.

Still, jobs, the labor supply and housing have to be considered in the same context. If not the board of trade, then other organizations -- in business and government -- will have to address housing and the labor shortage if the area's economy is to continue growing even at a moderate rate.