As part of what Maryland officials describe as a shift in focus to emphasize job training and placement for mentally retarded adults, the federal government has given the state $2.1 million to train more than 3,000 retarded persons for employment within five years.

The grant money will be used to expand a pilot program now serving about 800 persons, state officials said.

Maryland is one of 10 states receiving grants from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. The money, which will be parceled out in annual stipends of $422,000, will be used to hire administrators and job developers, as well as to help change the focus of private, nonprofit groups now employing the mentally handicapped in sheltered workshops.

The program, called Supported Employment for the Severely Handicapped, represents "a radical change in the way we serve the mentally retarded," said John Lancaster, director of the state Office for Handicapped Individuals.

"Instead of putting severely disabled individuals in day-activity centers or sheltered workshops or, worse yet, doing nothing for them, it puts them into gainful employment," he said.

"The program makes economic and social sense. It gives the mentally retarded the opportunity to develop as independent individuals -- to get a paycheck, to have a sense of dignity and accomplishment -- all the rewards of having a job. And it's much cheaper for us."

The state hopes that by 1990, 75 percent of the 4,000 people currently placed in day activity centers or sheltered workshops will be in "supported employment" programs, Lancaster said.

Supported employment means "doing literally whatever it takes" to help a mentally retarded adult get a job, said Lancaster, from hiring a full-time "job coach" for the individual to providing counseling for the individual and the employer to providing transportation for the worker or all of the above.

The concept is a "logical extension" of a federal law enacted in 1975 guaranteeing the severely disabled a right to a public school education through the age of 21, said Catherine Raggio, executive director of Maryland's Developmental Disabilities Council.

That law made "mainstreaming" -- the idea that, whenever possible, mentally retarded students should be placed in regular public schools -- the norm in education, said Raggio. But "those served by that law are now coming out of school and finding they don't have any better prospects than they have had historically," she said. "If they want a job, they're on their own."

Day-activity centers do not provide job training, she said, and while sheltered workshops do provide training, it is often inadequate.

Lancaster agrees. "In theory, sheltered workshops provide job training, but the reality is people never get out of there," he said. "They just stay where they are." The workshops provide a segregated atmosphere that is very helpful for some, but "is of little use for the person who wants a job in the 'real world,' " he said.

That is not the case at the Melwood Horticultural Training Center in Prince George's County, one of two pilot supported-employment programs funded by Maryland's Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration. Nearly 100 mentally retarded adults, assisted by the Melwood center, do custodial and other work at locations thoughout the Washington area, said executive director Earl Copus.

Businesses that have hired program participants include Safeway, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Zoo and the Goddard Space Flight Center, he said.