Reversing the massive growth of the federal establishment is a lot like trying to turn around a 50-ton freight train at the roundhouse while it's still traveling at 60 mph. Nobody ever said it would be easy, or that it would be painless.

For federal employees who are worried about the president's pledge to reduce federal employment by 75,000 over the fiscal years 1981-82, and another 75,000 during the following three years, remember that the attrition rate remains above 10 percent in the federal government, which works out to some 200,000 people leaving their jobs voluntarily each year. Admittedly, the attrition doesn't always take place where cuts are planned. And the abolition of an agency or program, or large-scale reorganization, will inevitably require a reduction-in-force. But other jobs will open up when one disappears. If those displaced devote their energies to seeking out new positions, rather than fretting about the old ones, they'll have a good chance to come out on top. It's largely up to the individual.

From the moment the new administration settled into the White House until the last day of 1981, only 7,004 federal workers were involuntarily separated from government service, even as the total number of federal employees was being reduced by more than six times that amount, or some 44,000! The rest of the reduction was achieved through the hiring freeze the president ordered as he took office, and attrition. To look at it another way, three-tenths of one percent of the non-postal federal work force was RIFed during 1981.

Obviously, for the individual directly affected by a RIF, the numbers are not much comfort. For a governmental community accustomed to the steady, unrelenting growth in size, resources and budgets of the past 50 years, the sight of a reduction in the size and scope of governmental activity has come as quite a shock. The truth of the matter is that the Reagan administration is succeeding in making a fundamental change in the direction of our national government even as it accomplishes the president's goal of "minimizing as much as possible the adverse impact of these reductions on the individuals involved."

Outplacement efforts run by the Office of Personnel Management, including the Displaced Employee Program, the Voluntary Interagency Placement Program, special programs established by individual departments and agencies, and preference granted to separate employees who apply for re-employment elsewhere in the government have softened the blow for thousands of federal workers.

There is plenty of concern over the way in which RIF procedures are working through all of this. I share this concern and believe that certain changes ought to be made. But it is important to remember that these procedures were requested originally by labor. And I believe it would have been perceived as unfair to change these rules as we underwent our first reductions. We'll work to revise the RIF rules at an appropriate time when the bulk of the necessary reorganization and reduction in staffing has taken place.

By now it should be clear to all that President Reagan is one of those rare chief executives who has the vision, determination and ability to write a new and badly needed chapter in American history. For federal workers, the really remarkable thing is how little adverse impact they have felt during this time of great change. To the degree that we can reform the government while minimizing the impact on the personal lives of the federal workers, we will do so. The evidence so far shows clearly that we are succeeding on both counts.