For all the talk of yuppie recessions and white-collar layoffs, yesterday's unemployment figures make clear just who is bearing the burden of the economy's recent plunge: people who make and build things.

The Labor Department's report shows that of the 647,000 jobs lost in the U.S. economy in the last three months, 90 percent have been in the so-called goods-producing sector: 321,000 jobs lost from manufacturing, another 261,000 from construction.

"We are practically down to the low point" of the 1981-82 recession, said Rudy Oswald, chief economist for the AFL-CIO, referring to the 18.6 million manufacturing workers counted by the government in January. In the 1982 recession, the number had dropped to 18.4 million at one point.

"Manufacturing is more cyclically sensitive," said Gordon Richards, an economist with the National Association of Manufacturers. "If you look at prior postwar recessions and compare {percentage} losses in industrial production with {percentage} losses in gross national product, they are typically three times as large."

In a typical recession -- and since August, this one has performed like the typical post-World War II recession -- sales of big-ticket items fall quickly once consumers lose jobs, lose incomes and lose confidence in their economic future.

"Whenever people start losing jobs, they delay decisions to buy things like cars," said James A. Mateyka, a vice president and automotive analyst with Booz-Allen, a New York-based management consulting firm.

"When there is a war, they really pull back from car purchases because of the uncertainty. Nobody's going to make a commitment to a big-ticket purchase when you've got that kind of uncertainty," Mateyka said.

As a result, the recession that has hit the rest of the economy has turned into a "depression" for the auto industry, Mateyka said.

Sales of all cars made in the United States dropped a stunning 25.5 percent in the week of Jan. 11-20, compared with the same week in 1990. The decline forced the nation's biggest car companies to cut back production.

Even Japanese automakers, who have enjoyed steady growth in market share since opening U.S. manufacturing plants, are affected. Honda Motor Co. said this week that it will build 5,000 fewer Accords, one of the most popular cars in America, in the first quarter of this year.

Other Japanese automakers in the United States may follow suit. Mazda Motor Corp., Subaru-Isuzu Automotive and Diamond-Star (Chrysler Corp. and Mitsubishi), all have fat inventories that would seem to warrant production cutbacks, some auto industry analysts say.

"Given the way demand has been running so far this year, we'll probably see some more production cuts," said J. Gerard Paul, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in New York.

Sharp declines in sales forced General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler to temporarily shut down 11 vehicle assembly plants this week, boosting auto industry unemployment rolls.

GM, for example, had a total of 72,200 workers on layoff status during the first week of January 1991, 63 percent more than it had on its unemployment rolls in the same period last year. Most of those layoffs are listed as temporary, GM officials said.

Manufacturing's problems also show up among military contractors. Yesterday, for example, Westinghouse Electronics Systems Group confirmed it would lay off 1,200 workers at its plant near Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Westinghouse was to have been a key subcontractor on the A-12 attack bomber, the Navy contract canceled by Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney a month ago.

Some of the steepest job losses among manufacturers have been posted by electrical equipment makers, including a number of well-known computer companies in the Northeast such as Digital Equipment Corp., Wang Laboratories Inc. and Prime Computer Inc. In the last two years, according to the AFL-CIO's Oswald, companies in the electrical-equipment category have lost 427,000 jobs -- more than 40 percent of the manufacturing jobs lost during that period.

Although manufacturing industries are losing hundreds of thousands of jobs, a look at the statistics reveals a surprising conclusion: Fewer of those jobs belong to actual production workers than in past recessions, and more of them belong to managers, salesmen, accountants and other white-collar employees of manufacturing firms.

In the 1981-82 recession, 89 percent of the jobs lost in manufacturing belonged to production workers -- on the assembly line, driving the forklift and so on. In the last three months, by contrast, 81 percent of the lost jobs were in production. And in the last month, only 66 percent of the jobs lost were production jobs -- precisely the proportion those jobs occupy in the average manufacturing firm.