Several times each day, frantic federal managers call on Rose Mary Howard in search of a qualified minority or female applicant to fill a job opening.

"They've got all kinds of mid- and high-grade level jobs," says Howard, and equal-employment specialist for the Department of Defense. "Usually they're for hard-to-fill positions like engineers or scientists or in distant locations like Guam or Spain or Saudi Arabia.

"And the heat is on," she adds, since the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 requires federal agencies to identify occupations in which minorities and women are underrepresented, and takes steps to hire more of them.

"Equal-employment opportunity is now a critical element in getting merit pay or cash awards, so supervisors and managers have to hustle to get qualified candidates and place people."

But qualified applicants usually don't know about these openings.

"They may have their application in to one federal agency," she says, but not the specific agency that has the job -- so both the agency and the applicant lose out."

Enter Von Payton, a personnel specialist with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

"It just seemed to me that the federal agencies were all going to have to get together," she says, "if we were going to implement the new law and get women and minorities jobs."

So last year at this time, she invited several dozen personnel and equal-employment opportunity specialists to meet and form a recruiting information clearinghouse. Fifteen showed up, and the Inter-agency Minority and Female Recruiters Association (IMFRA) was born.

Last week, Payton realized her dream when IMFRA opened its Career Assistance Center in space donated by the Department of Transportation at 400 Seventh St. SW.

"It's the first of its kind in the federal government," said Payton proudly at the opening ceremonies. "It's a one-stop recruiting information and referral service that will locate minorities and women for hard-to-fill jobs, and for jobs in which they have previously been excluded."

Job-seeking women and minorities (which includes, says Payton, "everyone except white males who don't have a handicap") who register with the center will receive an information kit and questionnaire.

When the completed questionniare is returned, the applicant's employment profile will be entered into the IMFRA talent bank where it will be available to agency recruiters trying to fill positions. Registration with the talent bank is free.

"So if an agency needs a left-handed Indian who can speak Portuguese," says Payton, "we'll be able to find one.

IMFRA's other services include free classes in filling out federal job applications (171 forms) and interviewing techniques. They soon will publish, in English and Spanish, a pamphlet on "How to Get a Job in the Federal Government."

They have prepared a directory of occupations in which minorities and women are underrepresented (in proportion to the civilian labor force), for use by job seekers and federal recruiters. Underrepresented occupations include engineers, health-related professionals, computer specialists, mathematicians, statisticians, auditors, accountants, managers and physical-science professionals.

The center's success, notes Payton, "depends on getting women and minorities to register." Currently the center is accepting registrations and queries by mail only. By next month, Payton hopes it will be staffed by members on a rotating basis.

"This is an idea that's long overdue," says Mary Louise Uhlig, national president of Federally Employed Women. "Affirmative action has been on the books for a long time.

"And despite all the resources the federal government has, it took a group of concerned civil servants to pull together and convince the establishment to really do something about it."