Ten Virginia state legislators, a few big-money venture capitalists and eight high-technology gurus symbolically shook hands with the nation's largest community college this month.

In front of the cameras, Northern Virginia Community College President Richard J. Ernst revealed a deal that proposes to give the two-year college a role in helping to make Northern Virginia businesses more innovative and productive.

In a joint venture with the Center for Innovative Technology, the college will play host to one of eight "Technology Transfer Program" directors in Virginia. Akin to management consultants, but focusing on technological rather than managerial problems and changes, the program's director will offer one-on-one attention to small to medium-size local businesses.

The pilot project, and the hoopla it elicited at a press conference last week, is the latest example of how the five-campus college not only serves the largest number of students in the country but also a growing number of businesses. With a student enrollment of 34,034, the college has been ranked the largest by the American Association of Junior and Community Colleges.

"The boom in business is reflected in the boom in interest in Northern Virginia Community College," said college spokeswoman Susan C. Reneau. "They know what a great deal we are."

School officials said that businesses are coming to depend on the college to provide low-cost career development for employes and to act as an important source of new employes.

The college's link with business has received support from the state legislature, which gave $110,000 toward the technology transfer program, from the U.S. Department of Education, which gave the college a $579,000 grant two years ago to expand its cooperative education program, and from local business leaders, who are the prime movers behind three nondegree business training centers on the Manassas, Woodbridge and Loudoun campuses.

Elizabeth Murphy, who directs the college's corporate donation foundation, said that the college finally is starting to attract donations from small to medium-size firms. "People stick with a winner," she said. " . . . With our national stature we're getting them to look in their own back yard."

Last year the school received $250,000 in donations from about 85 businesses, Murphy said.

"We provide them with so many employes."

About 61 percent of the 1986 graduates stayed in Northern Virginia to work, said school officials. Most of the rest were employed close by, in the District and Maryland.

Cooperative education is one of the largest business-related programs, which also include the Center for Business and Government Services and the continuing education program. Both run seminars for local firms.

To be enrolled in cooperative education, a student must be pursuing a degree and pass a screening process. The cooperative education office helps place students in jobs relevant to their course work while they are in school.

The program began on three campuses in 1971 and served fewer than 100 students and 25 employers, said Patricia A. Rheams, director of the Alexandria campus program, which is the college's largest. Last year the program served 1,729 students and about 600 firms.

The program has become an integral part of the education many students seek to make career changes. Last year 45 percent of all computer information system students were enrolled in cooperative education. Of those, 40 percent entered the college with bachelor's or master's degrees, Rheams said.

"Most of our career changers are white collar and getting out of education, nursing and sales and into the more technical careers," she said. The average age of her students is 35, she said, and 99 percent are paid for the jobs they are learning to do through the program. The average salary is $5.50 to $6 an hour.

While the program is popular with students, it's even more popular with employers, whose demand for students usually exceeds the supply.

"You get high-quality people at a low price," said Ed Smith, section chief for technical services at the Internal Revenue Service. Smith has been hiring students since 1982. "We hire as many as we have positions for," he said.

"When it first started out, it was pretty easy to get sharp people; you had your pick of the cream of the crop," Smith said. "Now it's a little harder because there are more {employers} involved . . . ."

Rheams said the program works well because it serves two masters, employers and employes. "At no stage is it altruistic," she said. "What {the employers} get are well-motivated, prescreened students."

Jack Fox, who works for the Farm Credit Administration, first used the college's cooperative education program when he was in private industry. "I was looking for attitudes, people who were willing to learn and to be part of a team. I couldn't pay a lot of money," Fox said.

With cooperative education, "I get a real good filter; they just don't send me warm bodies," he said. "They want to please me."

CIT's Gene Calvert, coordinator for the nascent technology transfer program, said the project offers yet another aid to businesses.

"They're so darn busy staying afloat, they don't have time to keep tabs on all the new technology," he said.

Calvert said he expects to be inundated with requests and that the need for technological advice will far exceed what the program can offer.

"We have no solid basis to say to the {Virginia} General Assembly, 'this is your need,' " he said. "It's ridiculous having one agent at this school, but you know how politics is."