Does a chocolate-peanut-coating-machine operator's job have more complex responsibility than a chocolate-drops-machine operator's job?

Are a pastry chef and nuclear powerplant supervisor equal when it comes to dealing with "data," "people" and "things"?

Does an obstetrician really "mentor" patients and a nurse-midwife merely "speak" and "signal" to them?

These are among the more than 20,000 questions that a committee at the National Academy of Sciences has been grappling with for the last two years while studying one of Washington's most amazing bureaucratic creations, the Dictonary of Occupational Titles. On Dec. 31 they will announce their findings to the Labor Department, which funded their work to the tune of half a million dollars.

Though the group has in fact questioned whether or not the dictionary deserves to exist, it is highly unlikely that this monument to the civil service will fall. In the life cycle of a bureaucratic offspring, a sweeping study usually signals that the publication in question has come of age

Commonly known as the D.O.T. in the Labor Department's division of occupational analysis where it was created, the work is a five-and-a-quarter-pound, 1,371-page, bright red paperback that lists and describes every job in the U.S. economy. It has been around for some 40 years and for at least 30 years has been used daily in local offices of the U.S. Employment Service all across the country.

William B. Lewis, administator of the U.S. Employment Service, boasts in the foreword that this book offers "the most comprehensive, up-to-date occupational information on job duties and requirements ever assembled in a single volume."

Another Labor Department spokesman has referred to the D.O.T. as the "Bible for personnel officers."

But an occupational analyst who worked on the D.O.T. expressed a different view: "No one else has attempted anything so ridiculous."

A characteristic entry in the D.O.T. reads: "534.685.010 Fiction-Paint-Machine Tender (match). Tends equipment that applies and dries strip of friction paint (striking material) on cards of matchbook covers . . ." The numbers at the beginning of the entry form a complex code by which jobs and job seekers are matched.

Say, for example, a job seeker steps into a federal employment service office in Palooka, Tex., or Roaring Stream, Ark. An interviewer asks about past experience and then chooses a job title and a code number that serves as the closest fit. Next, job orders with similar numbers are pulled from a file or a computer as possible matches. If no job orders with similar numbers ae available, other job orders are pulled. Whether the applicant gets a job or not, the system works beautifully from the point view of the Employment Service: The applicant has been properly coded and turned into one of the Department of Labor's annual statistics.

What may not work, however--at least from the point of view of the job seeker -- is the dictionary's deadly serious literalness and comprehensiveness. There are more than 100 varieties of sewing-machine opertor jobs. "Lawyer" is flanked by "lawn-sprinkler installer" and "layaway clerk." And there are job definitions for an "egg-breaker" and a "bedspread-folder": one who "strikes eggs against bar, allows contents to fall into bowl, and throws empty shells into receptacle" and the other who "folds fabric into halves, aligns edges, and matches pattern of fabric."

Even Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny aren't left out, though they are revealed as impostors: "Wears character costumes and impersonates characters portrayed to amuse children and adults . . ."

And the difficulty in understanding the subtleties of the D.O.T. increase when "worker function ratings" are considered. Although all jobs, both humble and high-powered, are listed in an impersonal numerical order, broken down only by industry groupings, the middle three digits of the nine-digit code -- the "worker function rating" -- rank the job according to "the worker's relationship to data, people, and things" (in that order). The lower the number, the "more complex responsibility" involved in the job.

For example, the 0 in the "data" hierarchy stands for "synthesizing" while 6 stands for mere "comparing." At the top of the "people" category at 0 is "mentoring," in contrast to 8 which represents the lowly function of "taking instructions, helping." Under "things," 0 is the number for "settin up," supposedly more complex than "handling," number 7.

The D.O.T. represents "poultry veterinarian" and "dentist" as two of the highest callings, along with almost all M.D. jobs. Both are rated 101. Does a veterinarian "mentor" chickens? Meanwhile, a "child psychologist" is rated at 061 (6 for "speaking, signaling"). So much for Erick Erikson and Anna Freud.

Nurturing, caring, responsiveness and sensitivity do not count for much. The dictionary rated a "gift wrapper" (364), a "human projectile" (347), a "fan mail clerk" (262), a "strip-tease dancer" (047), and a "canary breader" (161) higher than a "home housekeeper" (474), the closet definition to a regular housewife.

An "occupational analyst" is rated with the same code as the "poet" and the "prose writer, fiction and nonficition" (067), and "chick sexer," "Irish moss gatherer" and "laboratory assistant" are considered equally rock-bottom at 687. But some fine distinctions remain. The D.O.T. rates a "chili cook" (134) higher than a "Chinese-style food cook" (361) or an "Italian-style food cook" (361).

Occupational analyst Arden Nelsen, who has used all four editions of the D.O.T. and helped supervise the production of the last two, explained, "We wanted to see if we could classify workers and their potential with a greater degree of accuracy."

The first two editions, Nelsen said, crudely grouped industrial jobs under skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled headings. Another yet more cogent reason for the new rating system was "to get away from any definition of skill level," said Nelsen. After all, "nobody wants to be unskilled," he said.

But Nelson acknowledged that the rating system has its flaws. "It can rank to a certain degree in data and things, but the people hierarchy is no hierarchy at all," he said. Severing, helping -- is this much different than taking instructions? Signaling . . . is it above or below diverting?

"Negotiating," Nelsen went on to explain, "was originally at the top of the scale. Right before publication [of the fourth edition] we switched it."

The D.O.T. has a long history.

It was first published in 1939 by the U.S. Employement Service to meet a real need, regulate the exodus of men from industry to the military as the country prepared for war.

Ten years passed before a need for a second edition was felt. By this time, the D.O.T. was well-ensconced in local employment offices all across the country, working just as it does today.

It was during preparation of the third edition, not published until 1965, that an attempt was made to rate the complexity of various jobs. The worker function ratings are largely the product of Dr. Sidney A. fine, who has since left the government to become a "humanistic freelance consultant" (a title not listed in the D.O.T.). The big book, Fine now says, has become a "giant frozen in ice." Fine has learned, he says, that "people and jobs are dynamic."

But Fine's hierarchies survived into the fourth edition in 1977. This edition required twelve additional years of research, 75,000 additional on-site interviews, and the combined labors of some 135 analysts and clerks working for a period of roughly 24,000 hours. Neither the division chief nor any of the analysts dared to estimate the total cost.

A ballpark estimate, based on the 1979 funding for the Washington-based division of occupational analysis, its 10 field centers around the country, and its one special projects center would put the cost of the present edition at $36 million. Fine said he imagined the Encylopaedia Britannica cost less to produce. Of course, the staff of occupational analysts do not focus exclusively on the D.O.T. They also spend their time developing other publications and training Labor Department employes how to use their materials.

Like a family that has stayed in one place a long time, spawned several generations and accumulated a massive and unique history, the D.O.T. has slowly acquired a position of prominence that transcends objective evaluation of its merits.

At the governments Printing Office, it is a bestseller. More than 100,000 copies have been sold at $12 a copy. The book can be found in the 25,000 local employment offices administered by the Employment Service across the country. It can be found in guidance counselors' offices, vocational schools, private employment agencies, personnel offices of large corporations and in federal agencies besides the Labor Department.

Despite this wide distribution, more often than not the book is a dust-collector. Even in the Employment Service offices that use it daily for coding purposes, many of its finer features are wasted. As employment officers point out, people frequently just don't fit into job descriptions the way they're supposed to. Norman Harvey, a project officer in the Department of Labor's office of research and development, put the problem with th D.O.T. this way: "suppose you have someone come in who's had three and a half years of college, and then had some family tragedy and gone to work as a supermarket clerk . . . When you slap a code on somebody, you're kind of foreclosing what could be possible."

Harvey said that in metropolitan areas where the Employment Service is using computers to do job-matching, the D.O.T. codes have proven so inadequate to the task of describing people that yet another publication called the "Handbook of Occupational Keywords" has been brought in form the Bureau of Labor Statistics to assist in the unwieldy process.

Private employment agency people have their own highly skeptical attitude toward the D.O.T. "I know what it is," said Larry Chambers, manager of Career Finders Inc., "but our job titles depend on the people who come in the door. In the private sector, there are such a variety of jobs and it's always changing."

Employment agency personnel agree that the D.O.T. is too bureaucratic, too heavy, irrelevant to the market. In fact, a Washington group that tried to run a business using a system of coding similar to that of the D.O.T. failed miserably. Jim Sigros, head of a full-service employment agency in Oxon Hill, Md., Tellis and Dean Associates, told of the "employe bank" made up of some 40 private Washington agencies, including his and Chambers', that went bankrupt this spring when they started coding applicants and jobs order forms into a computer. "It was a nice system when it was done manually," said Sigros. "We'd be flying back and forth on the phone and it worked beautifully. But we put all this massive information in the computer and it never matched right."

But some people take the dictionary of Occupational Titles seriously.

A group of women at the University of Wisconsin in 1970 initiated a project called "Women in Apprenticeship," designed to get women into skilled jobs. They contacted government-sponsored manpower training programs, including the Job Corps, the Work Incentive Program and the Employment Service, only to discover that many traditional women's jobs were not eligible for funding for apprenticeship programs. Why? Because the Dictionary of Occupational Titles found them not be skilled and complex enough. A "marine-mammal-handler" was rated higher than a practical nurse or a nursery-school teacher.

It turned out that several Labor Department programs were using a formula to determine training time derived from the D.O.T. and a spinoff of it known as the D.O.T. Training Time Conversion Chart. The formula was simple: One added up the three digits that made up the worker function rating of a job. Plugged the sum into the chart. Presto. The training time was indicated. Four weeks was the maximum training time for jobs rated at rock bottom, such as practical nurse.

The group applied for and won a two-year grant from the Labor Department which resulted in what is now considered a classic on the D.O.T. The 143-page reports, called "Women's Work: Up From .878," was published in 1975 and shook the division enough to bring about the elimination of all sex-biased titles in the fourth edition.

Yet another $200,000 study, funded by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, is posing the question of whether any job measurement procedures can adequately assess the worth of jobs. The same National Academy of Sciences committee that will announce its findings on Dec. 31 is at work on it and has already provided an interim report: "At best, job descripition writing is a highly judgemental task."

In the meantime, the fifth edition of the D.O.T. is on the way. Chief of the Division of Occupational Analysis, Beatrice O'Bryant, says that she just has "a hunch" there will be another D.O.T. soon. "People have been asking if it could come out in 1984."

Arden Nelsen has worked for the Labor Department for 25 years, and has obviously had fun with the D.O.T. Back when he was a young man and single he used to take the D.O.T. home and study it. In due time he was promoted. Now he sits in his glassed-inoffice on the eighth floor of the Patrick Henry Building, four different editions of the D.O.T. strewn in front of him. Maroon, black and green, the first three editions are wornlooking hardbacks, two volumes each. The books' insides are such alike. It's almost as if Nelsen has watched over four generations of a family -- great-grandparents, grandparents, parents and baby. One edition begat the next, which begat the next, and Nelsen and the many people who have worked with him naturally don't want to see the process end.

Recently Nelsen was asked why "entrepreneur" isn't in the book that describes the entire American economy.

"What's that?" he responded.