West Point teaches plebes to become officers, maybe generals. Annapolis turns midshipmen into potential admirals.

Now comes a civilian version of these two academies, which old hands in government joshingly refer to as the "federal cadet corps." Its real name is the Candidate Development Program of the Senior Executive Service. It is a new concept in the government, borrowed from private businesses like IBM and authorized two years ago by President Carter's civil service reform legislation.

The idea is to have the civil service train a select group of middle-level, sometimes middle-aging federal workers to become the civil service generals and admirals of the future -- the top federal career managers and supervisors just below Cabinet level. What the government does is:

Pick out the most promising bureaucrats at the level of about grade 15.

Give them up to two years of special training and experience in high-level management skills, like personnel, program planning, budget problems.

Send them to occasional seminars and courses at goverment personnel training centers like Kings Point, N.Y., Denver, Colo., and Oak Ridge, Tenn., or the government's Federal Executive Institute at the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville.

When the trainees are done, they will be eligible for appointment to the Senior Executive Service, the corps of elite government managers who occupy jobs like general counsel, program planning director, bureau chief, everything just below the Cabinet and sub-Cabinet presidential appointees.

Right now there are about 7,000 people in the Senior Executive Service, according to the Office of Personnel Management. The "federal cadet corps" is just getting under way and has about 500 persons enrolled governmentwide so far, with each big agency setting up its own program.

For candidates, the advantage of being in the program is that they develop valuable management skills that can eventually bring SES appointment, higher pay (although for the moment Congress has frozen SES top pay at $50,112) and performance bonuses.

For the government, said Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services Thomas McFee, who has just helped pick out 42 candidates for his department's candidate development program, the system represents a way to develop "feeder groups" of qualified people that can fill the SES jobs as they open up.

McFee, in an interview, explained how his department chose the 42. To start, he said, the OPM has allocated Health and Human Services 705 SES jobs to help manage the vast department, which has 160,000 employes and a budget of over $200 billion a year. About half these jobs either are open to political appointments or need some specialized training -- in science, for example -- but the remaining 345 are career general management jobs. Figuring 10 to 12 percent turnover annually, HHS concluded it should start its SES candidate development program with 42 people.

Federal law requires efforts to recruit women and minorities for jobs. In HHS, McFee said, some 61 percent of all employes are women but they hold only 13 percent of the SES jobs. And 29 percent of the work-force are minority group members, but they hold only 12 percent of existing top management jobs.

So HHS made a special effort to publicize that "women, minorities and handicapped individuals are encourage to apply," as one brochure put it. In addition, it permitted applications not only from GS15s, but (with supervisor nomination) from people in the GS13 and 14 range, where there are more women and minority group members and thus bigger pools of such persons to choose from.

HHS ended up with 229 applicants to take the development program, of whom 127 were white men and the rest minorities and women. Final selection, said McFee and aides, was based on merit only.

Of the final 42 people chosen, 20 were white males, five were minority males, 11 were white females, and 6 were minority females. They ranged in age from 30 to 61, but most were between 35 and 45.

To select the final 42, HHS applicants through a series of "personnel war games." They were rated by three-person assessor teams who watched them perform in simulated management exercises over a two-day period.

One exercise was the "in-basket" test. The applicant was put in an office with two dozen documents in the in-box. These were the assumptions: you're new in your job. It's Sunday afternoon. You must leave town that night. You can't reach your predecessor. One document was a request by a subordinate for a one-month leave. Another indicated that during the same period, there might be an investigation of a relative of the leave-seeker for possible fraud involving the department. If you realized that the two facts were linked, if you made the connection, that was good. If you then took some savvy action, like contacting a subordinate to honcho the problem in your absence, perhaps with instructions on how to keep the first man within reach during the investigation, that was good, too.

Another test: you have a memo from an aide on a budget cut. You question him. If your questioning digs out added important information needed to decide where to cut, that's good. If you then make a wise recommendation to your own boss where to cut, that's good, too. In the exercise, it turns out that what you recommended cut is your boss' favorite program. How do you handle his reaction?

The top-rated 60 names were given to Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris. McFee says she chose the first 42 in order of merit.

These people, the cadet corps for HHS's future elite management corps, will now get a bit of classroom training, at the various OPM seminar centers and and institutes (they get salary and per diem). Within their own agencies they will switch from job to job to get a broad overview of managment problems and skills. A Social Security employe might work for a while in the Public Health Service. A budget expert might switch temprarily to personnel or labor relations. The average person will spend 18 to 24 months in this training and development work. Then, if all comes out well, he or she receives a certificate indicating completion and can apply for appointment to an SES job, in HHS or any other agency. Appointment isn't automatic. The applicant can only get the job if a slot is open and the agency head chooses him or her.

But the hope is, McFee said, that these people will constitute a permanent pool of tough, able career managers who will give the government the nonpolitical executive excellence needed to help manage an enterprise of more than $600 billion a year.