The conventional notion that a volunteer is a well-dressed woman serving as a museum docent one day a week and working at a rummage sale another day is a thing of the past.

Today's volunteers, say volunteer agencies in Northern Virginia, are young working people, students and retired professionals. And they want more than elegant jobs as museum guides.

"The kind of jobs that people are looking for today are what I call 'foot washing jobs'," says Kay Allardice, director of the Volunteer Bureau/Alexandria. "The volunteers want a real feeling of having made a contribution to mankind. They don't want publicity."

Take, for example, the five young persons who walked into the Alexandria office and offered their services for a recent Thanksgiving. "I sent them to Hopkins House (a settlement house for the needy)," Allardice says, "and they showed up with their own carving tools and carved 19 turkeys."

Or Sharon Figer, 18, from Annandale.Last year, Figer won an award for her work as a paramedic with the Annandale Volunteer Fire Department's rescue squad.

Or Laurie Bower, 31, of Alexandria. Bower, a mother of one, is working on a master's degree and spends one morning a week reading to a blind man who is working on a doctoral degree.

All the volunteers' got their jobs through volunteer clearinghouses in Northern Virginia -- the Volunteer Bureau/Alexandria, the Volunteer Action Center of the Fairfax County Area and the Arlington Volunteer Office. (The Arlington office is part of the Department of Human Resources and the other two are independently funded through the United Way and individual contributions.) The goal is each clearinghouse is to serve as a link between nonprofit organizations and volunteers.

Each clearinghouse interviews potential volunteers and, based on the volunteers' skills, time available and personal goals in serving the community, refers them to local organizations. Last year, the three clearinghouses matched 1,040 volunteers with positions at 340 Northern Virginia agencies.

Joseph Ginberg, 70, of Falls Church, has been part of the Volunteer network since 1966.

Five years ago a man walked into Ginberg's children's clothing store in McLean and announced he was going to buy his business. Ginberg accepted the offer, but didn't stop working; he began volunteering full time.

Five days a week, Ginberg "works" at the Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court as an assistant in child custody and child support investigations.

And in case that isn't enough, he spends each Saturday as a volunteer in the emergency room of the Fairfax County Hospital.

Ginberg says officials checked his background thoroughly before giving him the court position. "By some small miracle I got the job," he said during a break at the hospital. "Most everyone has some kind of sophisticated social service degree."

One thing that helped, he says, was a paralegal course he had taken at George Washington University.

At the court, Ginberg handles correspondence and helps investigate child custody disputes. He often contacts the defendant and plaintiff in custody cases, trying to determine the best interests of the child and the parents, and testifies at hearings.

At the hospital, Ginberg helps transport patients, watches them while they are in the corridor waiting for care and comforts their families.

"If a child is upset, he pulls out a puppet, and he automatically brings coffee to people waiting for family. He's hard to keep up with," says Dottie Towery, assistant nursing care supervisor.

While showing a visitor around the emergency room, Ginberg stops to help a woman on a stretcher. He quickly talks to her, then calls for a nurse. "You have to be a cool cat," he explains, smiling.

Has he ever had any close calls? "Well, I used to get some (pregnant) women in my shop who looked like they were going to (have their baby) any minute. I'd just tell them, 'Go home, please?'" he says. "I've had a couple of real close calls here. I always try to calm them down and tell them I've taken a special course in this. I tell them I learned to bend over and put my head between my knees so I don't faint."

Above the blue name tag on Ginberg's hospital uniform are two pins that he points to with pride. "One is my volunteer membership pin and the other is my 2,000-hour award for service here," he explains.

"It came to my attention very early on in life that the only true values in life are giving on oneself. From that springs true happiness," he said. If you would like to volunteer, you can contact one of the clearinghouses in Northern Virginia: Volunteer Bureau/Alexandria, 1707 Duke St. Telephone: 836-2176. Kay Allardice, director. Arlington Volunteer Office, 1800 N. Edison St. Telephone: 558-2654. Jean Berg, director. Volunteer Action Center of Fairfax County Area, 10530 Page Ave., Fairfax. Telephone: 691-3460. Judy Helein, director.