Suddenly laid-off adults scrambling to acquire basic techniques of job-hunting might turn to their teen-agers for help. Unlike their parents, many are being introduced early to sophisticated career guidance.

Career counselors say they are amazed at how many older-generation government workers, even in high-level posts, are ill-prepared to conduct a successful job search. Although mid-career clients may be fed up with their work and want a change, they have no idea what they want to do instead. When they were young, they might have become budget analysts or computer programmers, not as a result of careful research, but because somebody hired them for those jobs. Over the years, they realized they made a mistake.

At this point, if family and finances haven't trapped them, they may begin a weeks- or months-long "career and life-planning" process, similar to what many of today's youngsters are already involved in.

Washington-area school systems and others across the country have begun preparing interested students--from kindergarten through college--to negotiate today's fiercely competitive job market. And some adult career counselors are directing part of their attention to high-school and college-age clients.

Early career guidance, counselors agree, is of major importance both to students joining the work force immediately after high school and to those going on to college and advanced degrees.

"I get a lot of calls from parents," says Darryl Laramore, guidance supervisor for Montgomery County schools and author of Careers: A Guide for Parents and Counselors. "They say, 'My son's at the University of Maryland, and he doesn't know what to do. ' "

For young and old alike, career counseling is aimed at several goals:

* Making individuals more aware of their particular strengths, abilities and values.

In choosing a career, says Helene Glasgall, career-education coordinator for Arlington County Schools, students learn to consider such questions as:

Do I want to work with people or alone? Inside an office or out-of-doors? Do I want to be a supervisor some day? Am I interested in a job where people will look up to me in awe? Would I be happier at a creative job or doing research? How do I enjoy spending my leisure time? Is there a job possibility there?

"Look what's going on with the RIFs, the adult workshops. We could hit the kids now. They are dying for this."

* Awakening job-hunters to the broad range of careers open to them.

Too many people of either generation, say career advisers, narrow their perspectives too quickly. Often they forget the possibility of going into business for themselves.

If you want to be a doctor but don't have the brain power to conquer medical school, don't give up on the health-care profession entirely, says Jean P. Grenning, a vocational coordinator for Montgomery County schools who offers private consulting ($25 an hour) to teens through her Rockville firm, Career Directions. Look at related jobs.

The student without musical talent who dreams, "I want to be a rock star," might, Grenning suggests, at least find related work in the record industry or in a theater. "Sometimes you can't exactly have your wildest dreams, but maybe you can come close to it."

A Montgomery County couple insisted their son aim for a Harvard medical degree; he was reluctant and his high-school grades plummeted. A psychologist recommended he see a career counselor, who helped the youth assess his abilities and interests. He showed remarkable ease in communicating with people, and enjoyed it. The counselor's suggestion: Consider a sales job in medical supplies. The student subsequently enrolled for a degree in business.

In Fairfax County schools, where a career-education program has been operating for three years, English teachers ask students to obtain samples of writing from professions they are interested in, says program supervisor Cathy Cockrill. Then they evaluate their own writing to see where it needs improving to meet the profession's standards.

* Teaching individuals how to make decisions.

If a school's guidance staff is overworked, say longtime career counselors Harold and Marilyn Shook of Life Management Services in McLean, a student puzzling on whether--and where--to go to college might be told: "When you make up your mind, come see me." A lot of high-school students aren't ready, they say, to make those decisions on their own.

The Shooks market a five-session, 18-hour Young Adult Course ($125) focusing in part on making college decisions: What does college offer me? What will I get out of it? Am I better off at a small college? Can I afford to go?

* Teaching specific job-seeking techniques.

The basics include re'sume' and letter writing, researching potential employers, dressing properly and surviving a job interview. Stresses Laramore: "You're not hired on the basis of your competence. You're hired on how well you do on an interview."

Students who go through a career-education program, counselors say, are preparing not only for their first job but for the rest of their lives.

Job-hunting skills will be particularly helpful in the upcoming decades as technology eliminates many jobs and creates new ones. As a result, career experts say, the average worker will try three or more careers in a lifetime. Each change means a potential crisis to the individual who doesn't know how to get relocated.

"If you know what you have to do to get moving," says Irene B. Ansher, a Montgomery County psychology teacher who also counsels adults and youths ($40 an hour) through her firm, Career and Life Planning Associates of Potomac, "you may not prevent a life crisis, but you will have a better faculty for identifying your objectives and reaching your goals."

"Once you understand the process," says Laramore, "you can go through it yourself. The myth is that you make a one-time job decision. These kids can look forward to six or eight different jobs."

For a number of reasons, however, many high-school students still graduate with little or no exposure to career instruction. While Montgomery County has a strong program--including a semester-long careers course--it is an elective, as are similar programs throughout the country. College-bound students often feel they don't have the time or the need for the information.

The students Grenning gets in her private practice often have not, she says, taken advantage of school programs. "A mother called me the other night. Her son a senior hasn't made any plans. He doesn't know what to do."

Implementation of the Fairfax program rests primarily on classroom teachers and guidance counselors whose reaction, says Cockrill, has been "kind of mixed," with some complaining that they already have too much to do already.

In recent years, federal education funds have been earmarked for career instruction to foster the development of new programs. But now because states and communities will receive non-defined block grants they may choose not to fund career instruction, particularly in areas where there is a strong back-to-basics movement.

But, says O. Ray Warner of the Education Department's career-education office, "There is little that is more important in today's society than helping young people to develop skills and attitudes to succeed in the work place."

The Arlington County Coalition for Career Education, a group of concerned parents, teachers and business leaders, helped inaugurate an innovative career-education program in county schools three years ago. Funding for coordinator Glasgall's job expires in June. So far, says coalition leader Polly Liss, the school board has not agreed to continue the position.

"We have too many young people--and older people--who don't know where to turn, what job-search tools to use," laments Liss. "It costs money not knowing."

Her own daughter, who did not have career instruction, spent an extra year in college to get her degree. "She didn't know how to explore her interests in a more difinitive way. She made a change in mid-college from one field to another."

Though freshmen entering George Washington University are much more sophisticated about careers than they were 10 years ago, many of them still lack the fundamentals of making a career choice, says Barbara Fitzgerald-McClain, assistant director of student and alumni career services. Some of them "see so many options, and they don't know where to start. And others don't see anything, and they don't know where to start."

Often students pick a career on the sole basis of what is most marketable. But, says Fitzgerald-McClain, she cautions them to decide only "after you've looked at your skills and values." Her office sponsors an "extern" (versus "intern") program in which students "shadow" alumni for two weeks in fields that interest them. They're also trying, she says, "to push students into part-time summer jobs" to introduce them to a profession.

Counselor Grenning considers part-time work invaluable for high schoolers as a "reality rub." One student, she says, gained new incentive to pursue his studies after one job. " 'Gee, I'm working for a 45-year-old,' " the student reported, " 'and he's just making $4.50 an hour.' "

"Just having some kind of direction," says Grenning, "even if they change their minds later, is comforting."