A good secretary is hard to find.

So say Alexandria city officials. In 1984, the city had 165 clerical vacancies. In just the past three weeks, there have been 17 vacancies. The large number of openings is a result of the city's outdated hiring system, a small personnel staff and a shortage of secretaries in Northern Virginia, city officials said.

So the city has retained a secretarial agency to recruit administrative aides, secretaries and office clerks.

Potomac Personnel of Alexandria will be taking over the advertising, testing and screening of prospective city clerical employes for the next year, said Bradford S. Hammer, deputy city manager and acting director of personnel.

"The city has had difficulty recruiting a high level of clerical employe. Potomac Personnel will provide more rigorous testing procedures that we can't provide because we can't afford to," Hammer said.

"Our tests were a general test at best. We were unable to measure skills beyond the minimum," said employment supervisor Phyllis Shapiro. A typing speed test and a numerical filing test were used by the city personnel department in the past. The personnel department has a staff of three.

"We had to provide a lot of on-the-job training. Some people who didn't have the skills were frustrated by it and would leave," Shapiro said.

Under the city's testing method, it would often take six to 12 weeks before a qualified person could be found to fill a vacant position. The city hopes that Potomac Personnel's more sophisticated testing methods can provide workers with "greater skills and longer retention" on the city staff, Shapiro said.

The city has been without a director of personnel since October, when director Robert Burnett left Alexandria for a similar position with the city of Cincinnati. An executive search firm has been recruiting for Burnett's spot, and a new director is expected to be chosen in the next few weeks, Hammer said. The director will choose a deputy personnel director, a position vacant since the beginning of the year.

During the past year, Alexandria's contracts for temporary clerical services cost the city about $100,000. The city employs 620 full-time and part-time clerical employes.

Potomac Personnel area manager Lynda Kost said that this is the first time that a city government has retained her firm to recruit clerical help. The city accepted proposals from seven agencies before it awarded a contract to Potomac Personnel, which offered the lowest bid. The city retained Kelly Services Inc. to meet back-up temporary clerical needs.

"We in the industry were surprised that the city decided to go through an agency for recruiting," Kost said. "We realized that they wouldn't have gone to the commercial sector if they didn't need help. They may not be our biggest customer dollar-wise, but we want to help."

The city anticipates spending the same amount of money -- about $100,000 -- with the two temporary agencies as it spent on temporary help in 1984, according to the notice sent out to the clerical businesses.

Potomac Personnel will provide temporary as well as permanent clerical help. In addition, it will be testing the city's clerical staff for those seeking promotions within the city government, Kost said.

Kost said that she and other members of Potomac Personnel were approached by city employes seeking secretaries, clerks and other support staff as they emerged from the June 25 City Council meeting, where they were awarded the contract.

Temporaries recruited by Potomac will enter a job knowing that it could become a full-time position, Kost said. After a 45-day trial period, supervisors can decide whether to hire the employe full time.

Kost said that the shortage of secretaries is widespread in Northern Virginia. The construction boom of Northern Virginia office buildings and the needs of businesses occupying them has increased the need for clerical help, Kost said.

In addition, Kost said, many Northern Virginia high school students are pursuing higher education instead of secretarial careers in business. Kost is a member of the Business Advisory Council for Fairfax County Public Schools.

Don Miller, vocational education director for Alexandria public schools, said business courses attract the largest number of students of any vocational education classes.

About 30 percent of the members of each of the past three graduating classes have earned enough credits in business courses to qualify them theoretically for a job as a secretary, stenographer, word processer, accounting clerk or general office clerk, Miller said.

"However, this past year there were fewer students in business education courses. Projections for the coming year show that there is an 8 percent decrease," Miller said. "This is the first time that I've seen business courses take a decrease in the 20 years I've been here.