The construction industry said yesterday it cannot meet the Labor Department's first deadline for a massive expansion of the number of women in building trades jobs, and blamed the department for the delay.

In a tersely worded letter to Labor Secretary Ray Marshall, the Associated General Contractors said the department has failed to cooperate in developing a plan satisfactory to the government for training thousands of women as construction workers by March 31.

This is the first deadline established in a 1978 departmental order requiring goals and timetables designed to give women 6.9 percent of all jobs offered by contractors that do work for the government. Women now hold 1.2 percent of the construction industry's 4 million jobs. The target for this year is 3.1 percent.

AGC, which represents 8,000 construction companies accounting for 60 percent of the nation's contract construction work, told Marshall it has developed a 2,000-hour, or roughly one-year, training program that it believes would meet the guidelines. Union apprenticeship programs normally take four to six years.

But the department's Bureau of Apprenticeship Training contends that such a short-term program would produce inadequately trained workers who would not be able to find permanent employment in the industry.

"They're simply trying to skirt the apprenticeship regulations," a bureau official said.

"Our 8,000 members stand ready to comply, but are relegated to a bureaueratic treadmill that allows for absolutely no progress," AGC said in an earlier complaint to Marshall. "It is the 'traditional approach' to recruitment and training for construction that has placed the industry in its present position."

AGC contends that it is boxed in by departmental rules on two sides. It says it would take three times the available new apprenticeship slots just to meet the guidelines for women. And it says it cannot go outside government-approved apprenticeship programs to hire trainees at less than journeyman pay scales without violating Davis-Bacon Act requirements for federally funded construction projects.

Rebecca Sweeney, a program analyst for the Bureau of Apprenticeship Training, said there is nothing to stop companies from hiring women at journeymen scales and giving them on-the-job training. Journeymen pay is often double that of entry-level apprentices.

Construction trades unions have strongly opposed any encroachments on their time-honored apprenticeship programs, and their views have been reflected historically in bureau policy, according to several officials within the Labor Department.

AGC officials said some member companies will go ahead with their own training programs for women, but said industrywide compliance is unlikely.

AGC spokesman William Jayne said the association plans to send letters to all members of Congress urging pressure to get the Labor Department to back off the hiring guidelines or accept an "innovative" training approach.

Failure to comply with the guidlines could lead to withholding of federal contracts from violators.