Office of Personnel Management Director Donald J. Devine yesterday ripped into legislation that would set up a government-wide job placement program for employes caught in reductions-in-force.

Devine told the House Human Resources subcommittee that the placement plan -- part of a RIF protection bill introduced by Maryland Democrat Mike Barnes -- "would gladden the heart of Rube Goldberg," whose specialty was designing machines that could complicate any simple procedure.

Since the Reagan administration has been in office, more than 15,000 federal workers have been RIFfed -- including about 3,000 here -- and many others downgraded and transferred because of layoffs and reorganizations. He said that existing job placement techniques benefited 28,000 workers (a figure questioned by the General Accounting Office). The exact number of employes who needed placement help is unknown, although OPM said its efforts took care of 80 percent of them. GAO said it was uncertain how many employes actually needed the assistance. But it also said it was not certain that a government-wide placement program would help that many more people.

Under current rules, most agencies run their own job placement efforts. The Department of Defense -- the largest employer in the government -- has what is regarded as the best job placement operation in government. It covers civilian employes of Defense, Army, Navy and the Air Force. Defense claims that placement efforts save it millions of dollars in training costs, severance pay, unemployment benefits and other costs associated with layoffs.

Devine argued that the Barnes bill would force agencies to accept "unqualified" employes fired by other agencies. An aide to Barnes said the legislation would "increase management authority" by letting bosses decide if a worker RIFfed from one agency was retrainable within 180 days.

"What we see now," the aide said, "is a bureaucratic shell game where a vacancy appears and then is withdrawn if the 'wrong' person shows up for the job." Sometimes, he said, job qualifications are so narrowly drawn "you would have to be a left-handed window washer who learned the trade in 1945" to qualify for it. In many instances, he said, the agency has a left-handed window washer circa 1945 waiting in the wings as the only qualified candidate. A government-wide job placement policy, he said, would minimize such problems.

Devine again made a pitch for his proposed RIF streamlining procedures that would base an employe's job security on performance and seniority. That system, he said, which will go in effect next July (unless again blocked by Congress) would benefit women and minorities. Currently, employes with the most seniority, and veterans, have the greatest protection from RIFs.