A young woman is bewildered as she enters the Employment Commission office in Falls Church to file her first unemployment claim, after recently being laid off.

The manager of a temporary employment agency in Alexandria is "overwhelmed with applications" from highly qualified people who have recently found themselves out of jobs.

And a Springfield school that trains people in the computer sciences is "getting more college grads than ever before."

Those are signs that the sour economy is touching even Northern Virginia, long considered more recession-proof than most other areas of the country.

Although its unemployment rate of 4.3 percent is still well below the state average of 7.8 percent and the national average of 10.8 percent, to those affected it's a real problem.

"The labor market has deteriorated in Northern Virginia," said Wesley Caison, the manager of the Northern Virginia Employment Commission, who cited the riffing of federal employes as one factor.

Yet, while admitting that the situation is much worse in other places, he quickly added, "Everything is relative to what is normal" -- and unemployment is most definitely not considered normal here.

Caison said a problem peculiar to Northern Virginia is that "there are jobs available but they're entry-level positions with minimum pay. The unemployed today are people who have never been unemployed before. They are highly skilled and professional. They've been earning $20,000 and up."

Donna Buck of Falls Church hesitantly joined the unemployment line recently at the Virginia Employment Commission office. "I've never been here before," she said. "To tell you the truth, I don't know where to start." Until recently, Buck was the merchandise manager at a Grand Union store. "When they started closing stores, people were kept by seniority," she explained.

Todd Castorina of Herndon left the Marine Corps with hopes of finding a job as a mechanic but now he, too, was standing in the unemployment line.

"I didn't know jobs were this bad or I would have stayed in the Marine Corps," lamented Castorina, who said he's been looking for work for several months. "I look everywhere. I've been filling out applications all the way to Arlington," he said.

Conrad Mason, 17, of Prince William County, called the unemployment situation "pretty sad." He had been lucky enough to find a job pumping gas, but then was let go following a change of ownership at the service station.

"I go through the paper all the time," he said. "When I call, the positions are either already filled or they're looking for someone with five years' experience or better."

Besides the unemployment line, people are also looking into possibilities such as part-time work and career changes.

Doe Symes, manager of Career Temporaries in Alexandria, said that since the unemployment rate has increased, "the skills (of those looking for work through her firm) are much higher."

"It's a client's market," she said. "I am so overwhelmed with applicants that I can pick the best. But there is always a job for someone highly skilled who is a good worker."

The Computer Learning Center in Springfield also appears to be benefiting from the unemployment rate.

"Our business is up. It's higher than it's ever been," said Janet Gailun, an admissions officer at the center. "Some people are moving back in with their parents while they attend school here."

Gailun believes that younger people are realizing the need for getting good computer training. "College degree or not, if they don't have the skills, they're not going to make it," she said.

Even though Northern Virginia's unemployment rate is just above 4 percent -- a figure economists believe is about as low as the rate ever gets -- doesn't help those people low on the seniority totem pole when the layoffs come.

Buck, who said she doesn't know where her rent money will come from, was plainly nervous as she considered her future.

"Right now, I'm looking for anything," she said.