Barely three weeks into the second half of the year, economists and others are calling attention to the inevitable: The area's economy is beginning to show signs of slowing.

One need not be an economist, however, to conclude at some point that the region's economy can't possibly sustain the high level of growth that we've seen in recent years.

That's not to say, however, that slower growth will lead to a prolonged slump. It merely means the area's economy is "slowly slackening," Stephen S. Fuller, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, told The Washington Post recently.

Job growth, generally regarded locally as the bellwether of the area's booming economy, remains at an all-time high. Employment growth has nonetheless tapered off recently, recording a net increase of 13,100 in February and a gain of only 6,700 in April.

Meanwhile, the area's unemployment rate edged up slightly in May, rising to 2.6 percent, from 2.3 percent in April, according to the most recent figures compiled by the D.C. Department of Employment Services.

Even so, only 69,400 people were unemployed in the Washington area in May. That's an average of less than 2,800 for each of the seven cities and 18 counties in the Washington metropolitan statistical area. The MSA, which spans the District and parts of three states, includes Spotsylvania and King George counties in Virginia and the West Virginia counties of Berkeley and Jefferson.

And yet the contrast is striking when the average unemployment figure for all jurisdictions in the MSA is compared with joblessness in the District. Although unemployment in the District fell another notch, to 6.2 percent in May from 6.3 percent in April, the number of unemployed people stood at 16,800.

That is substantially less than January's unemployment total of 20,000 or so. But if nearly 17,000 D.C. residents are out of work at a time when business leaders and elected officials are raving about the city's "stronger" economy, what will the jobless picture look like in a slower-growth scenario?

That's certainly something for District officials to think about.

Not to worry. Why be concerned about the slow pace of job growth and high unemployment in the District when the area's economy is slowing? After all, Congress recently approved a major tax-cut package adopted by city officials on the theory that the District's economy continues to rebound from a prolonged slump.

But the District's economy, though much stronger than it was six months ago, isn't booming, as some have suggested.

Yes, home sales in the District are increasing as the city becomes more attractive to groups that range from empty-nesters living in the suburbs to single professionals.

And yes, commercial construction has rebounded from the real estate recession that gripped the area a decade ago. Office vacancy rates are down and tax revenue is up, though improvement in the revenue stream can be attributed mainly to a more aggressive effort in the collection of taxes.

Still, improvements in those areas and two successive budget surpluses after a near-fiscal meltdown in the city do not make a strong economy.

Although the DES has reported unemployment figures for May, it hasn't yet released the area labor summary for that same month. The summary for April is nonetheless revealing in what it shows about job growth in the District.

The service industry, which provides the biggest share of private-sector employment in the area, lost 800 jobs in April. Although there was a gain of 4,800 jobs in that sector during the 12-month period that ended in April, the continuing loss of federal jobs in the District over that same span offset those gains.

Government downsizing continued to play a pivotal role in the loss of jobs in the District's economy, as a net of 3,000 jobs disappeared during the same 12-month period, according to the DES. The federal work force shrank by 2,200 and the District cut its work force by 800.

The District's labor force increased by 2,200 from May 1998 to May 1999, to be sure. But the fact remains there are 16,800 District residents who are unemployed.

Clearly that's an improvement over the 19,000 unemployment figure that was reported six months ago. But that level of unemployment in a city that's not gaining jobs at a high rate has major implications for the District as the region's economy settles into a slower rate of growth.

Those 16,800 people are counted as part of the labor force and presumably are looking for work. They're also people who normally pay taxes and contribute in other ways to the city's economy -- not to be confused with the hard-core unemployed who either choose to drift aimlessly on the streets or prey upon the helpless and unsuspecting.

The fact that almost 17,000 D.C. residents are unemployed is not only a measure of limited job growth in the District, but a strong indicator of a mismatch between the talent and skills of the unemployed and the jobs that are available.

Whatever the reason, it's clear that the District needs to do a better job of recruiting various types of businesses. It's equally clear that city officials will have to invest more of its resources in job training.

As it is, they have at least 16,800 reasons to be concerned about the current status of the District's labor market.

Chances are they will have other reasons to be concerned as the region's economy settles into a more moderate growth pattern.