Hard hit by the nation's economic downturn and the Reagan administration's moves to slash the federal bureaucracy, the Washington area (and the rest of the country) is seeing the acceleration of a relatively new development in job finding: the job-search support group or job club.

The idea is not all that different from mutual-support groups to stop smoking, lose weight or overcome a drinking problem. Only in a job club, the mission is to help each other find work.

For anyone on the trail of an elusive job, the quest can be tedious, depressing, lonely. Says Richard N. Bolles, author of the nation's best-selling job-hunting book, What Color Is Your Parachute, and a job-club advocate:

"I would make it mandatory that nobody goes job hunting unless they have four people in a support community they can see on a daily basis for warmth and hugs, so the search isn't solitary." Group job hunting, he writes, "is clearly an idea whose time has come."

Most job clubs provide both psychological and practical support: Company to share your misery, sympathetic ears to listen to problems, advice on how to improve a resume' or interviewing skills, cooperative efforts to uncover job leads and the often very necessary kick in the pants to keep job-hunters going until finally one day somebody says, "You're hired."

"It's very stressful to be out of work. There's a psychological loss, the loss of one's sense of identity, and the financial aspects increase the stress," says Judy Mueller of the Northern Virginia Information and Counseling Center for Women, which has formed a job-search support group for men and women. "You're so vulnerable, particularly single people whose sense of identity is tied up with their work."

While friends and family may try to comfort, often they don't really understand the emotional turmoil the unemployed worker is experiencing. At home, an unthinking spouse may "delegate household tasks because he [or she] feels you are not doing anything," says Virginia Wheeler, a counselor who runs the Northern Virginia center's support group. To the contrary, job-hunting can be "arduous" and "time-consuming" and require "a lot of psychic energy."

At Forty Plus of Washington, a cooperative nonprofit job club with branches throughout the country, morale-boosting for the unemployed is important.

"Family and friends may get tired of listening to your tale," says president Patricia Smith, "but we don't. We're all interested in that aspect of your life. We don't get bored with each other."

Job-hunters sometimes begin to think something is wrong with them when they can't land a job. It helps raise spirits when "competent, capable people" meet others encountering the same difficulties, says Abbie Smith, assistant dean of George Washington University's Center for Continuing Education, which is forming a job-search support group for the first time this fall.

"To do a difficult job requires you to do it," says career-counselor Marilyn Goldman, who has seen job hunters "sitting by themselves hoping somebody else will find the job for them." Her firm, Horizons Unlimited, runs a weekly job-support group where setting and completing weekly goals -- such as contacting a specific number of employers -- is stressed.

"A support-group meeting each week maintains motivation," says Goldman, who is convinced job-hunting can be an "exciting" quest for better work and more pay. "The harder they work -- and they have to produce for me -- the faster the results."

At a recent session, one woman vowed to spend a day putting dollar figures on her accomplishments in her last job as a way of selling herself to a new employer. A young man promised to get his resume' to the printer and obtain the phone numbers of 50 companies he could contact for interviews.

Another major benefit of job clubs is in networking -- getting out the word of availability to as many people as possible. Fellow club members spread the news as well as bring back information on job possibilities they have heard about. "If everybody does it," says Goldman, "people are getting good leads."

Though Robert M. Pearlman, a 26-year-old management consultant with the Department of Education, wasn't out of a job last year, he was interested in making a big career switch to become a professional photographer. He had grown up in a family where photography was considered "good as a hobby, but you'd never want to do it for a profession." He credits a job club with giving him the courage to make the "big leap."

He had signed up for an American University careers course called "Art-Work," aimed at people interested in working in the arts or arts management. When the 10-week series ended, he and his classmates decided they had gained so much from the interaction among themselves they wanted to keep on meeting informally.

"We felt we could really be helpful to one another," says Pearlman, "even if we just listened to each other's trials and tribulations." About a dozen of them have been gathering informally a couple times a month over the last year, comforting, sharing leads -- "everybody has their eyes out" -- offering advice and "brainstorming" new areas where their skills might be valuable.

Initially, many people may have a negative attitude, says Pearlman, fearing that because of the state of the economy, "jobs don't exist. But we work to build the idea you can create what you want; you can find things that aren't obvious."

At the beginning of each meeting, participants have two to five minutes to summarize what they've done -- both successes and problems -- and ask for any help they want from the group. "For me," says Pearlman, "it's very reinforcing getting off my chest what I've accomplished or where I've been disappointed": if an interviewer, for example, has turned out to be "a jerk."

At the end of each session in members' homes or a restaurant, each person spends a minute or two talking about their next objective. "You can't get away with doing nothing," says Pearlman.

Several members have found art-related jobs in recent months, and for Pearlman, job-club interaction meant gaining confidence in his ability with a camera. As a result of other members' encouragement and favorable comment on his work, he began doing free-lance photography with some success, earning $75 to $100 a week in his spare time. At the end of this month, he will leave his federal job to begin his new profession.

"It's scary," he admits, but he knows his group is pulling for him.

Job clubs form in many ways. Pearlman's developed spontaneously. Another emerged when career counselor Barbara Kruszewski of George Washington University volunteered to lead a group for Arlington Unitarian Church members threatened with job loss through the government's Reduction in Force.

The American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) wanted to do something to help threatened members. Other private and public career-counseling organizations are organizing groups in response to what they see as a community need.

A willingness "to share," to make a contribution to the group is essential to its success, says ASPA's Sharon Dyer. "If you go into a group only with the attitude of 'what it can do for me' you're not going to get anything from it."

Methods of operating vary widely, though in most cases someone with career-counseling experience is available for advice.

Forty Plus is one of the oldest and most highly organized. Active members must contribute service one full day a week. As public-relations specialist Anne Hirshel, 54, considers a job switch, she is contributing her time as the group's public-relations director.

For other Forty Plus members, the day's work often means making phone calls to some of the 2,000 Washington-area employers the club has on its list. It contacts these employers at least once a month in search of job openings. The club also sends out a regular newsletter to employers with brief resume's of job-seeking members.

One thing all job clubs have in common: Their biggest goal is to get rid of members.

"It's for a good cause," says Patricia Smith of Forty Plus. "They've found jobs."