Fifteen months ago, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) ordered the construction industry to sharply increase the number of women working in the building trades. Goals were set and timetables drawn up.

The Labor Department, the construction industry and women's groups now agree that these goals have not been met. But there is a vigorous debate over both the degree of failure and where to place the blame.

"The contractors haven't exactly been falling all over themselves trying to find women," says Libby Howard, a founder of Women Working in Construction. The group was one of two local organizations which joined a lawsuit against the Labor Department three years ago. The suit resulted in the current affirmative action program.

Construction contractors say that one of the reasons Labor's goals haven't been met is that there aren't enough qualified women available.

"I personally don't feel the numbers are out there," says Eva Poling, executive vice president of the Mechanical Contractors D.C. Association. "We've had difficulty (getting) qualified women to apply to apprenticeship programs."

At the Labor Department, Jack Bluestein, chief of the division of national programs in the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, acknowledges that the goals have not been met. However, he says, "The feeling we have is, there is definite progress being made."

One of Labor's two related regulations called for women to hold 3.1 percent of the construction industry's 4 million jobs by March 31 of this year. Labor statisticians estimate the actual figure is 1.2 percent. The department's long-range goal is 6.9 percent by 1981.

The other regulation ordered all registered apprentice programs to make sure that women accounted for at least 20 percent of apprentice classes this year. But James Mitchell, deputy administrator for Labor's Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training, says the mark is closer to 4.1 percent.

The D.C. Department of Labor, which keeps statistics on the number of women working in the metropolitan area does not have those figures broken down by types of jobs.

But Carlton Veazey, director of the D.C. Apprenticeship Council, which serves the District and suburban Maryland and Virginia, issued a report in April which showed that only 21 of the 97 apprenticeship programs registered with the council included women. In those 21 programs, women made up just 8 percent of the classes.

"There's been a tremendous amount of foot-dragging," says Helen Lewis, director of the D.C. Commission for Women. "We've got a very long way to go."

Margaret Kohn, a Washington attorney representing some of the women's groups involved in the suit against Labor, characterizes the construction industry's compliance with the regulations as "dismal." But she places a share of the blame on Labor, for its "failure to undertake adequate compliance activity and conduct enforcement."

Officials in the Labor Department's compliance office admit they have just recently begun compliance reviews of contractors affected by the regulations. They blame the delay on bureaucratic confusion, caused by a massive reorganization of Labor last October. In addition, they say, statistics are unavailable for the first 15 months of the three-year period covered by the regulations because a computer system designed to keep track of the information is not hooked up yet.

"We're getting 10,000 reports a month, and we can't process them by hand fast enough. . . to know how we're doing," says Bluestein, who is respected by women's groups for his success at getting women jobs on the Alaskan pipeline.

Women's groups, using the same rough statistics as Labor, complain that women are not doing very well at all in the construction industry. Jane Fleming, codirector of Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW), a local organization which helps women find "non-traditional" jobs in all fields, says there has been no more than a token increase in the number of women in the building trades.

"The media has given a lot of attention to one electrician here, and a carpenter there," says Fleming. "But real change hasn't happened. The publicity is outrunning the reality."

Labor officials concede that no construction companies or apprenticeship programs have been penalized with loss of federal contracts or certification, as stipulated in the Labor regulations. Officials say they are waiting for the computer hookup before they go after violators. They also notes that the regulations excuse failure to comply as long as there is a "good faith" effort by companies to meet the goals.

"We feel that progress is being made. Our staff and the sponsors of the programs with whom we deal are making a concerted effort to conform to the goals in the secretary of labor's regulations," says Paul Vandiver, director of the Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training (BAT).

Women's groups disagree. One high-ranking official in Labor's own Women's Bureau contends, "We're getting exactly the same kind of arguements and resistance as when we tried to implement goals for minorities in the early '60s."

Construction contractors dispute the charge that they are deliberately excluding women. In a letter to Labor Secretary Ray Marshall earlier this year, the Associated General Contractors, which represents 8,000 construction companies, said apprenticehip requirements make it "impossible" to comply with Labor regulations.

But some federal officials say contractors are hiding behind excuses.

"They're not beating the bushes," contends Robert Sutton, Washington director of the Recruitment Traning Program, a Labor-funded job counseling and referral agency with offices in 70 cities. Sutton maintains that there is an adequate pool of women eager to learn the building trades, but construction companies purposely avoid finding them.

Fleming, of WOW, agrees, but with reservations. She admits there have been instances where companies could not find enough qualified women. For that reason, part of WOW's $750,000 budget this year is being spent on pre-apprentice training programs for women, conducted in conjunction with local carpentry and electricians' unions.

"We're not going to be able to hold contractors' feet to the fire until we have the women," says Fleming.