With relatives and friends cheering them on, 64 graduates of the Montgomery County Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) marched into a Rockville auditorium this week to receive secretarial diplomas that have taken most of them off county unemployment rolls.

All but six graduates in the class of 97 men and women have been placed in government or private industry jobs in Montgomery County. Most were unskilled and out of work as recently as six months ago.

"Many of us had poor outlooks on our lives and on ourselves," said graduate Deborah Kelly, who gave the class welcoming address.

"Now we have the basic skills to achieve a much higher position in life," added another student. It was a message that was repeated throughout the commencement ceremony.

OIC is an international association of independently incorporated, nonprofit Manpower training centers. It was founded 15 years ago in Philadelphia by a Baptist minister, Leon Sullivan. Today, Sullivan is OIC national director and chairman of the board, although the organization no longer has an official connection with the Baptist church.

"Sullivan's belief is that people want to work," explained Maurice Dawkins, OIC congressional liason, who gave the commencement address. "They don't want a handout, they want a hand up."

There are more than 150 OIC centers in the United States and 10 centers abroad, in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. More than 450,000 people have been trained and placed in jobs, according to OIC officials. Funding comes from local and federal governments and private sources, said Dawkins. The U.S. centers have a total annual budget of $113 million.

The 5-year-old Montgomery County chapter, at 12303 Twinbrook Park Rd. in Rockville, is funded with a $242,000 grant from the county Department of Human Resources.

"We train people only in the area of general secretarial skills," explained Nansie Word, director of the Montgomery County OIC. Any unemployed or underemployed person between the ages of 18 and 60 is eligible for the six-month training program.

A study of the faces at the graduation ceremony revealed a range of ages and ethnic backgrounds, but all seemed to share an enthusiasm for OIC and the prospect of holding down a secretarial job. The class theme, sung by a gospel choir and posted in large, blue-stenciled letters along one wall, was simple: "We have only just begun."

"It was an experience I'll never forget," said William Lancaster, one of a handful of male OIC graduates. "I never thought I'd like secretarial work."

Lancaster was referred to OIC by the county unemployment office. "I was doing a lot of manual labor," he recalled. "I thought I would upgrade myself."

Lancaster, boasting that he types 40 to 45 words per minute, said he hasn't been placed in a job yet, but he confidently predicted, "I'll be working before the month is over." A secretarial job is just the beginning, he added. He plans to continue studying by taking computer courses at night.

"There are a lot of people who aren't doing anything," Lancaster said. "They're just in dead-end jobs. OIC ought to be advertised so people will know about it."

A friend referred Mary Lefeged, 32, a homemaker and mother of two small children, to OIC. Lefeged decided to look for a job late last year to help her husband pay the family bills.

"Since I was going to work, I thought I might as well get some skills," she recalled.

Lefeged said she studied hard at OIC. "My daughter and I used to sit down at the table and do our homework together," she said. Today she works as an administrative assistant for a government agency. "I love going to work every day," she said.

It's the high motivation of OIC graduates that impresses many employers, said Richard Paganotta, personnel supervisor with Mutual of Omaha. "The success of OIC graduates is quite evident in my office," he said. "We hired 23 graduates. Of those 23, 22 are still there."

Hard work, self confidence, determination - those were the themes that graduates, wearing shiny blue caps and gowns, heard and applauded.

"Make no mistake about it," warned Dawkins in his commencement address. "The times are very bad. As far as jobs and money are concerned, it's a dark picture."

But, he added, OIC graduates have a special mission to light the way for other unemployed people looking for a way to develop skills that will land them good jobs. With that in mind, Dawkins said, "OIC graduates are not going to be a match, they're not going to be a candle, they're not going to be a flashlight - they're going to be a lighthouse."