Although the federal hiring offices are swamped with applicants for beginning and mid-level jobs -- in some cities there are 90 applicants within hours of a job vacancy announcement -- Uncle Sam is still beating the bushes for nearly 100 qualified people to take long-vacant $50,000-a-year slots.

In New York City recently, the U.S. Postal Service let it be known that it had a handful of openings coming up for clerk and letter carrier positions. It got more respondents for those positions than Richmond has people.

When the Baltimore post office announced it was taking applications, the crowds got so big that police had to be called out to keep people in line, and make sure a riot did not break out.

On the other hand, government hiring officials are advertising in newspapers, posting special notices and using the "old boy" network in industry and universities in an attempt to lure people into highly specialized slots in the Senior Executive Service.

Obviously federal pay, benefits and -- the big item these days -- the relative security of a government job are looking good to hundreds of thousands of people new to the job market, or people in the private sector (whether they are with auto companies, airlines or the soon-to-fold Washington Star here).

While government personnel offices report that phones are ringing off the hooks for beginning and mid-level jobs, the $50,000-per-year pay lid on top government salaries has kept hundreds of key technical and scientific jobs open for months.

At this very moment the government is panting to have someone to direct engineering for Agriculture's Soil Conservation Service, wants somebody to head the National Veterinary Services Lab in Ames, Iowa, wants an assistant inspector general for Commerce, is seeking several top assistants to Defense Secretary Weinberger, needs a scientific adviser for the Army, somebody to manage the Condensed Matter and Radiation Sciences Section of Navy, an associate general counsel for the Federal Communications Commission, a slew of top openings at Food and Drug Administration.

The National Science Foundation here wants a $50,000-a-year type to head its Earthquake Hazards Mitigation Section. The Secret Service wants agents-in-charge for its Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles field offices. a

Top federal officials -- including some cabinet members -- are pressing the White House for a strong statement in support of some kind of executive pay raise this year. Although Senate and House leaders are kindly disposed (in private) to a top pay raise, members who are jittery about voter reaction to executive pay increases are reluctant to allow executives even the 4.8 percent raise other feds are due this October.

There is something brewing in Congress that could lead to an executive pay increase. But officials are wary of talking to the press about it, fearing publicity will kill whatever they are planning.

Meantime, although rank-and-file federal workers believe they are underpaid compared to private industry, a lot of people in private industry are out there filling out Form 171 applications hoping to get their jobs.