In the career-oriented decade of the '80s, volunteering isn't just a time-filler for the leisure class.

Corporations like the Prudential Co. encourage their retirement-age employes to "try out" a second career with one day off a week for volunteer activities. Students use volunteer jobs as a way to gain experience, make contacts, and build up their resumes. Homemakers consider volunteering an unpressured path to paid jobs after young children are in school all day.

And the elderly keep up their skills, find an outlet for hobbies, and form new friendships by volunteering their lifetime expertise.

Says Jean Berg, coordinator of the volunteer program for Arlington County's Department of Human Resources, "There's been a change in the people who come as volunteers. Years ago, it was housewives. Now we get teen-agers, students who want experience in their field, businessmen, retirees, and people with careers as well as outside interests. There's a trend towards both younger and older volunteers."

A recent survey conducted by the Volunteer Clearinghouse of the District of Columbia shows twice as many volunteers under 30 as those 30 to 60 years old, and almost three times as many either employed or full-time students as retired, unemployed, or housewives.

"Even though we discovered that far more women than men volunteer, men have always been included," says Clearinghouse director Ruth Sloate. "Volunteering in the U.S. began with barn-raising, and men have traditionally given their extra time to politics."

"People are looking at volunteerism as a steppingstone, especially women," says Linda Laskin, director of the Montgomery County Volunteer Bureau. "They hope to explore career possibilities, develop job references, and meet people."

Marcia Pruzan, a former executive secretary to ex-Mayor Walter Washington, left her job nine years ago to raise a family of three children. Now 35, Pruzan began volunteering 1 1/2 years ago because she wanted to go back to work, but needed flexible hours.

"I was worried about making a regular commitment to a job, so at first I gave four hours a week to the Montgomery County Volunteer Agency," says Pruzan. "Now I have a five-minute radio show once a week on station WINX."

From Debbie DiGregorio, a 22-year-old senior majoring in psychology at the University of Maryland: "My career goal is a Ph.D. in counseling psychology, but in my classes I get only theory. I wanted to find out for myself what counseling is like. Many places told me I could volunteer as a tutor, but only the Burtonsville Boys' Home is actually letting me do it."

Todd Felter, 21, earns credit for his volunteer work at the Washington Streetwork Project-Sasha Bruce House in Northwest D.C."This is my internship," says the 21-year-old political-science major at Washington College on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Alveta Anderson, a 17-year-old senior at the Academy of Notre Dame in Washington, works three hours a week at Congress Probe, a Nader-financed weekly newsletter stressing congressional accountability.

"I wanted to be in an office, and this sounded interesting -- working for a consumer-interest group. I'm also volunteering to help me get more jobs later."

Jack Govan, 81, a former professional trumpet player who taught himself to play bagpipes, now entertains people in hospitals "just for the fun of it."

Lee Weber, who says she's "76-plus," volunteers her experience as a practical nurse 15 hours a week at Prince George's Hospital. Trained by the Red Cross during World War II, Weber says, "The young Candy-Stripers (teen volunteers) can't do what I do. I love working with children in the pediatrics ward. I feed them and change them."

Brian O'Connell, executive director of the Coalition of National Voluntary Organizations, says that the places where people choose to volunteer have changed. "It's harder for churches and hospitals to get volunteers, but people are becoming more involved in local politics, better communities, and citizen agencies."

William Southworth, 34, who returned recently to the Washington area, chose to "reorient" himself by working a few hours each week for Judith Toth, a state legislator from Montgomery County. "I want to be a conscientious and concerned citizen and find out what issues move people," he says. "This job isn't encouraging. I certainly won't be a politician, but at least I'll be aware of local issues."

Joseph Manson, 56, a disabled veteran, and, in his own words, "unemployable," volunteers up to 72 hours a month for the Prince George's County Office of Emergency Preparedness. "I've gone out on explosions, accidents, or fires. We try to get tenants together when a disaster occurs -- to console them, to counsel them. We also maintain security by staying until the police or management provides it. I feel that God spared my life, and others need help."

For Emelda Logan, an "over-60" Arena Stage "Angel," volunteering is a way to provide a needed service. "If Arena had to pay a person to do what I do, the cost would be tremendous. I usher, serve bar on Saturday nights, help with addressing and stuffing envelopes, collate, and file. In return, Arena offers me many fringe benefits: I can go to all the performances, the dress rehearsals, and opening-night parties. It's very rewarding and educational."

Selma Gratz, a 62-year-old volunteer guide at the National Collection of Fine Arts, expresses the original religious and philosophical basis of volunteering. "I do this because it's the way I was brought up; it's part of my religion and it's the American way of life. I'm not embarrassed by this volunteering. Many people don't want to or need to produce capital. They're helpful to others instead."

For area residents who always wanted to volunteer some extra time but didn't know where to ask, volunteer bureaus can provide the answer. All six surrounding jurisdictions have at least one person who can match volunteers with needful agencies.

It's best to try these clearinghouses first, unless you know exactly where you want to volunteer. Volunteer bureaus have a tempting array of choices for all needs and abilities. They also make sure the volunteers they interview and recommend are adequately supervised and receiving the rights to which they're entitled: on-the-job-training, a record and evaluation of work, references if requested, and, in some cases, insurance coverage and reimbursement of travel expenses.

In return, the volunteer bureaus stress a volunteer's responsibilities: to honor their time commitment, to record hours, to keep track of their mileage or fares if they claim tax deductions for travel, and to keep the bureau aware of the agencies' treatment of volunteers.

Before considering volunteering, it's a good idea to think about why you want to do it. In Ruth Sloathe's opinion, "No one can do any good unless they first satisfy their own needs. They can make a commitment to a better society, explore job opportunities, or make friends, but they must get personal satisfaction out of it above all else."