Herbert Lee Johnson was doing all right. After more than nine years driving a tractor-trailer rig for a local building contractor, he earned $11,000 a year. But wanting to do better than all right, he volunteered for a government program designed to give blacks and other minority persons training in higher-paying construction jobs from which they had been excluded.

Johnson attended night classes for three years while working fulltime, passed his apprenticeship as a sheetmetal worker and became a journeyman in the union. Expecting to double his salary, he bought a house in Seat Pleasant.

Then, after about 18 months in his new status, and more than 13 unbroken years with the same company, Johnson was laid off. He has not worked since October and now is afraid he may lose his home.

"If I was still driving that truck," he said, "there's no doubt in my mind I'd still be working today . . . I'm 45 years old and it's too late for me to get out of this trade. But collecting unemployment ain't my style."

His two children are grown and on their own, and Johnson is stubbornly optimistic. "I'm not sorry I made the move. They've got to start hiring sheet-metal workers again some time," he said.

Johnson's name is below more than 200 other names on the list of 270 currently unemployed sheet-metal workers in the union, which lists about 1,000 members.

Unemployment in the construction industry, in which work is often temporary even in the best of times, is estimated to be as high as 20 per cent nationally.

Johnson's plight is one example of ways the current job crunch is hampering efforts to integrate minorities and women into skilled crafts. Blacks may have difficulty getting a foot in the door, but so do many whites.

Some workers and others maintain that unions are using the unemployment situation as an excuse to keep outsiders outside and to perpetuate a system in which the best-paying, most secure jobs go to those who are politically and culturally close to union bosses. But the unions say they are, as one spokesman put it, "reconciled to having to do it (integrate) and they are doing it."

Even some minority spokesman say there is a basis for guarded optimism in the search for a working alliance, if not friendship, between unions and minority interests.

"We were delighted with our progress before this high unemployment," said Roland J. Williams, executive director of Project Build, "now it is minimal."

In a converted warehouse at the intersection of North Capitol and M Streets, clusters of mostly young (18 to 23), mostly black and mostly male Project Build trainees wrestle with electrical cables, build ducts out of sheet metal or practice other skills in order to pave their way into construction jobs.

Their instructors are union men. The ultimate goal of Project Build, a community program sponsored jointly by the Greater Washington Central Labor Council and the Washington Building and Construction Trades Council, is to place the trainee in the apprenticeship program of a skilled-craft union. Williams said.

The trainees express optimism about their chances of obtaining jobs they want. But unless the economic picture changes, fewer than half will be placed in jobs of any kind, much less the coveted union spots.

"In our last class, we placed about 47 per cent in jobs of some kind, union or nonunion," Williams said. "It had previously been running about 70 per cent.

As of last September, only 11 per cent of the almost 2,000 graduates had gone through apprenticeships and become union journeymen, he said. He estimates that figure has almost doubled with the graduation recently of two apprenticeship classes.

"We've got to be positive . . . The attitude is, you've got to work hard and be better than the other man to get those jobs," Williams said.

Another spokesman for minority interests, Lavell Merritt, director of a coalition of local building trades and civil rights groups, acknowledged that "we can't increase the amount of work, but we want to ensure that minorities do not suffer disproportionately."

Toward that end, his organization, the Washington Area Construction Industry Task Force, has sought to maintain pressure on federal and local officials through such activities, as a current lawsuit against several federal agencies.

The task force suit charges that the Departments of Labor, Defense, and Health, Education and Welfare, Environmental Protection Agency, and the General Services Administration are not performing their legal obligation to enforce affirmative action programs by contractors doing construction work for the government.

Diane Graham, acting director of the office of contract compliance at the Labor Department said the task force charges are "without merit, and we are defending the lawsuit on that basis. That is not to say we are satisfied with the situation but that the federal agencies are enforcing the Washington Plan."

The Washington Plan was imposed in 1970 in the metropolitan area to establish quotas and timetables for inclusion of minorities in certain skilled crafts performing government contract work.

The plan was based on findings that despite high minority participation in unskilled, lower-paid trades (laborers, for example, were 90.6 per cent minority persons), there was little in skilled trades.

Minorities averaged 3.3 per cent, for instance, of iron workers, sheet-metal workers, electricians, plumbers and pipefitters, according to the Labor Department.

Employment opportunities have scarcely changed since the plan was initiated, according to Merritt. The percentage of minority journeymen in all skilled trades in the Washington area has risen from 17.4 per cent to only 18.4 per cent, based on the best figures available, Merritt said.

Union spokesmen counter that apprenticeship programs, the primary avenue of entry into these trades, take several years to complete so that results have not yet appeared in the figures.

The task force charges that by the end of 1975, 8 of the 17 major apprenticeship sponsors (unions) in the construction trades had less than 19 per cent minority participation. While the District of Columbia itself has a minority population of almost 80 per cent, the government has set a goal of 26 per cent minority participation to reflect the population of the metropolitan area.

Parties on all sides complain that, in any case, statistics on this subject available from unions are unreliable.

Ronald Moore, 23, single and black, also does not know the statistics but does know that he had been waiting three years for admission to the painters' apprenticeship program. "They tell me my name is sixth on the list to be called now," he said.

Meanwhile, Moore is taking any avialable odd jobs, ranging from stuffing envelopes to selling men's clothing. "I know there aren't any jobs. I can't say anything about discrimination, because I don't know. This should be my year. If nothing happens this year, I'm going to be one of the main ones complaining and arguing about the situation," he said.

While minorities are being admitted increasingly to apprenticeship programs, the "payoff" involves job referrals after they are in the union, according to Marvin Rogoff, an official of the Equal Employment Commission and a former union official. "Eventually somebody has to decide who gets the choice jobs, who gets the lousy ones . . . But it's a kind of labyrinth, trying to find out how (the unions) work. They don't write anything down, and there doesn't seem to be any standardized way of doing things."

According to Merritt of the task force, a worker's standing with the union power structure affects his treatment.

"Minorities lack political clout in the first place, because they are few in number. They don't drink with the others and don't live in the same neighborhoods. So you get further away from favored treatment. As work becomes more and more scarce, the minority worker is liable to spend more time sitting on the bench, and the jobs he does get are those with short tenure and long traveling times and lower wages," Merritt said.

George Welch, a carpenter who has been attempting to organize blacks in his union, said, "It's the suburbs versus the city. The workers who live in the city are not getting their fair share of the work that's being done right here in the city. I'm not hung up on the theme of racial discrimination. It's more fraternal discrimination. Those in the city - black, or white or Spanish - just don't have the right connections."

Still, Merritt said he is encouraged by several factors. One was a recent court decision in a suit by workers against the electrical workers' local. The court issued a consent decree establishing a 10-year panel that includes representatives of the union and workers to establish goals and timetables.

Merritt also cited recent actions by District of Columbia officials to reserve one-fourth of government contracts for minority businessmen, and cited promised improvement in the city Apprenticeship Council's affirmative action enforcement procedures.

White union workers are reluctant to discuss their own views about integrating the trades.

It's a personal matter that people kind of keep to themselves," one young white plumber said. "I think people feel like a man should be hired on the basis of ability and that race should not come into it. And I guess that might put some people at a disadvantage."

According to Jack Guest, business manager of the sheet-metal workers' local, "The men who come in through the (affirmative action) program seem to be a reasonable bunch. There have been no real problems on the job or in the apprenticeship program. As long as they pull their weight, they get along pretty well, and they seem to be doing it."

Many of the members of the construction trades feel they have been unfairly singled out as racial bigots, according to one AFL-CIO source. "The record was not good a while ago, but the trades have made considerable progress as far as their own biases in the last 15 years," the source said.

"When people live in fear of unemployment for seven or eight years, it doesn't do any good to pump in more skilled craftsmen.It just increases extreme competition, and this jeopardizes social and economic affiliations among people. The workers resent implications that they are irrevocably biased people . . . But you can't employ a lot of minorities when you can't employ a lot of everybody," the source said.