Sam Romeo's muscular hands and stubby fingers moved cautiously over the keyboard of the Apple II computer as he pecked out the letters and coded characters for a practice program.

"This is the new wave . . . the new generation," said Romeo, who was laid off last year from his job as a tractor operator at a nearby Bethlehem steel mill east of Baltimore.

Like thousands of other workers in this blue-collar community, where the traditional steel and auto assembly industries have been hit hard by recession and foreign competition, Romeo says he considers himself permanently laid off--a "dislocated worker" in the argot of the bureaucracy. At age 34 he is back in the classroom, trying to remold his life as a computer programmer.

He is one of about 120 former steelworkers, auto assemblers and others recently enrolled in the Eastside Occupational Training Center here, a federally funded program administered by Baltimore County to help train the permanently unemployed in computer science, electronics and robotics.

Although some, like Romeo, have been attending daily classes for a month or longer in the converted furniture store at 431 Eastern Ave., the center celebrated its official opening today with punch and cookies, speeches by state and local politicians and a ribbon cutting by Baltimore County Executive Donald P. Hutchinson.

"We know you want to work; we know you are proud," Hutchinson told about 200 persons, many of them skilled steelworkers attempting to adjust from the rough-and-tumble of the Essex cold-sheet mills to the sleek hushed environment of high technology. "We know this is new to you, and if it was within your power, you would much rather be working today."

Hutchinson told a reporter later that unemployment in the Essex-Dundalk area on the eastern fringe of Baltimore is about 20 percent, with an estimated 7,000 workers throughout Baltimore County considered permanently unemployed.

When the Eastside training center gets into full gear next month, it will have about 200 participants in various phases of instruction, with a goal of retraining 1,000 persons a year, said Myra Shapiro, head of the county occupational training administration.

Romeo, married with two children and unemployed since he was laid off by Bethlehem in February 1982, says much of the traditional steel industry will continue to exist, "but the work's all going to be done by robots and computers. That's why I think this is going to be the thing of the future," he said, patting his computer terminal mounted on a smooth wooden table.

While he is a student at the center, Romeo said, he receives $153 a week in unemployment compensation; his wife works part-time. Other students, such as Larry F. Hensley, 37, a former state park ranger from Garrett County, does not receive unemployment but draws a weekly stipend of $113 from the training center. Funds come from the U.S. Labor Department. Training center officials say they expect $6.2 million to $9.3 million in the upcoming fiscal year for all county training expenses.

Several private firms and Dundalk and Essex Community colleges are providing instructors. The county training administration, working with area industries, is attempting to tailor the instruction to available jobs.

While the students are preparing themselves for the high-tech future, Hutchinson told the crowd, "There is no robot today, or in the next 20 years, capable of replacing the human spirit. By being here and showing a willingness to adapt, you are halfway home."