With labor economists predicting a national shortage of 5.3 million skilled workers and a shortage of 1.7 million unskilled workers in the next five years, the Washington region needs to begin preparing for the inevitable crunch, according to a Prince George's Community College study.

The gap, which is already being felt in the Maryland construction industry, will grow worse without changes in policy and training, the report said. The state's construction industry estimates it could hire about 7,500 workers today but cannot fill those jobs because applicants are ill prepared or don't have the transportation to get to work.

"We were all alarmed at the magnitude of the workforce shortage," said Daniel P. Mosser, vice president for workforce development and continuing education at Prince George's Community College and co-author of the report.

The situation is complicated by an increase in enrollment in four-year colleges, drawing from the pool of literate young people who might otherwise have been recruited for skilled jobs in construction or nursing, another area of shortage, the report said.

And it is compounded by a decline in vocational training programs preparing skilled workers, and an aging baby boomer population headed toward retirement and opening up jobs.

In Prince George's County, the fastest-growing jobs by the end of the decade will be in the service industry, retail trade and construction, according to the report. County officials who attended the conference at a Greenbelt hotel where the report was presented yesterday pointed out that Prince George's is poised for a construction boom, with several impending building projects, including the National Harbor development on the Potomac River.

County officials said they are committed to training and retaining skilled trade workers. Ronald A. Williams, president of Prince George's Community College, said the college is responding by starting to offer training programs for jobs in high demand. Williams said he was expanding the nursing program and planning to offer a maintenance engineering program.

"We are gearing up for these specialty needs," Williams said.

Others at the conference said educators should shift their perceptions of trade work as less glamorous or valuable.

"A lot of people are not college material," said Roger Herman, chief executive of the Herman Group, a consulting firm. "But we can still be training them."

County officials also expressed concern that six of every 10 residents work outside the county. "It is a matter of jobs," said Stephen Fuller, chairman of the George Mason School of Public Policy. "More jobs [in the county] would resolve most of these problems."

Even as it has jobs going unfilled, the county has job-seekers who can't find work and a large number of people living in poverty. The 2003 unemployment rate of 4.7 percent is nearly double the rate in neighboring Montgomery County. Also, the number of people in poverty in the county rose to 60,196 in 2000 from 41,282 in 1990, while the labor force participation rate declined to 71 percent from 78 percent.

"We have to draw people into the labor pool who have been traditionally excluded," Mosser said.