When Northwest resident Ronald Pray applied for a job at the new Marriott Hotel downtown, he had little hope of being hired. As an ex-offender, Pray had had a hard time finding work after he left the D.C. Jail.

But Pray had one thing in his favor. He is a participant in the Targeted Jobs Tax Credit Plan, a little-known federal program that gives a tax break to companies that hire people who normally have trouble finding employment.

Pray, who has been cleaning the lounge in the Marriott for the past 10 months, is enthusiastic about his work. He was designated employe of the month in December. "Everybody likes Ron. He's created quite a niche for himself," said Marriott personnel director Betsy Kramer.

The program that has boosted Pray's morale also has been a boon for business. The tax credit is attractive to businesses because it provides an employer tax relief of up to $3,000 in the first year and $1,500 the second year for each worker hired, without requiring a lot of paperwork. To use the program, all an employer has to do is send a TJTC-verified voucher, provided by the targeted worker, to the Internal Revenue Service.

Marriott spokesman Al Rankin said the corporation hired more than 400 TJTC workers in the District last year. Since the program began in 1979 Marriott has employed 4,700 TJTC-validated people nationwide, thereby saving more than $4.5 million in taxes.

Last year, the D.C. Department of Employment Services issued vouchers to 2,800 people and 1,359 of them found jobs. In 1980, the program's first year, 2,900 people participated, but only 798 found jobs.

For disadvantaged people, participation in the TJTC program could mean a steady income and valuable employment experience that can be translated into other jobs when the program is over.

Like Pray, Ken Smith, another ex-offender, found employment with the aide of TJTC.

"It's been very helpful," said Smith, who had been out of work for two years before finally landing a job as a painter with Broadway Decorators in Hyattsville. Smith, who has been with Broadway for seven months, says he's thinking about starting his own painting business.

"Ken Smith has worked out very well," said company owner Danny DeSarno. He calls the tax credit "a blessing. I didn't realize what it was worth. It practically pays half his salary."

Both Smith and Pray found out about the targeted jobs program through Liberation of Ex-Offenders Through Employment Opportunities, a Washington-area nonprofit agency that specializes in helping former convicts find jobs. But there are thousands of others who are not ex-offenders--the poor, undereducated, and chronically unemployed--who could benefit from the TJTC program if they only knew about it.

"TJTC makes sense. It helps people without giving them a handout. . . . But the biggest failure is that potential applicants don't know about it," said personnel consultant Milt Gordon at United Services Inc., a D.C. janitorial company that currently has about 75 TJTC workers on its payroll.

TJTC participants have been hired here for restaurant, maintenance and security work and other entry-level jobs in Marriott and Ramada Inn hotels, at Woodward and Lothrop and other smaller firms. But participating employers agree that the program, for all its potential benefit, is underused.

Lorraine Whipple of the Private Industry Council said the program fits into the Reagan economic plan of helping the economy by stimulating business, but that it should be better publicized. "When I first started working at the council, I was amazed that so few companies knew about it," she said.

The council is a coalition of 40 diverse businesses that shares information about investment and development in the District. Whipple has started a campaign to tell members about the benefits of employing people targeted for the tax credit. "I tell employers about the program and they are surprised. There just isn't enough publicity," said Fred Hufford, a job developer at LEEO. Last year Hufford found jobs for 100 ex-offenders validated under TJTC.

Responsibility for locating targeted people and validating them for the program falls to Washington's beleaguered Department of Employment Services.

Hufford said the department has not promoted the program aggressively enough. "They are poorly organized. They just haven't made the effort to educate the public about TJTC," he said.

Last week, Job Services director Carolyn Jones, who heads the city agency overseeing the voucher program, agreed to have someone tell a group of unemployed people about TJTC, but the representative never showed up.

Many of the people could have qualified for the program but they left the meeting discouraged. Some said the incident was typical of the employment office's attitude toward the jobless.

But led by tenant's rights organizer Dan Dimmick, of Washington Inner-City Self Help, the group brought the meeting to Jones' office the next morning and wrested a promise that staffers would validate people for the jobs program at a WISH meeting in Adams Morgan the next week.

"I've heard the criticisms and we're planning to be more vocal," Jones told the group. She said her office was handicapped by budget cutbacks and uncertainties about whether the program would be continued in 1982. TJTC, which falls under Title 7 of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, was reauthorized last August.

Although funding levels still have not been determined, Jones indicated that Washington could receive about $21,000 to administer and publicize the program this year, an amount she finds "less than adequate" to take care of the District's 25,000 unemployed who are seeking jobs.

Although a TJTC voucher may make a person more desirable to hire, critics say another weakness in the program is that participants must generally locate jobs on their own.

The Targeted Jobs Tax Credit program is designed to aid a specific group of disadvantaged people in finding work. This group includes:

Handicapped people who have gone through a rehabilitation program;

People aged 18 to 24 from poor families;

Recipients of Supplemental Security Income (SSI);

Veterans who served during the Vietnam war, from Aug. 1964 to Sept. 1978;

Anyone who has received general assistance for more than a month;

Ex-offenders who are hired within five years of conviction or release from prison.

People who think they may qualify for TJTC should have identification--a birth certificate or driver's license--and be able to document their incomes and the earnings of all working family members. Veterans should have their DD214 forms.

All District Employment Services offices can certify people for the targeted jobs program and issue vouchers. Offices are located at 1000 U St. NW, 1319 H St. NE, 4120 Kansas Ave. NW, 1217 Goodhope Rd. SE and Eighth and Xenia streets SE.

Washington Inner-city Self Help at 1459 Columbia Rd. NW and Liberation of Ex-offenders through Emloyment Opportunities at 309 E St. NW will also validate qualified people and help them locate jobs.

Businesses interested in participating in TJTC can get booklets explaining the program from the Office of Job Services, District Department of Labor, 300 C St. SW. CAPTION: Picture, Ronald Pray isone of 4,700 people hired by Marriott Corp. under the program since 1979, saving company more than $4.5 million in taxes. By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post