Thousands of federal workers, many just three weeks from losing their jobs, are receiving little meaningful assistance in locating new public or private sector employment, according to government personnel coordinators and the increasingly apprehensive employes themselves.

Despite an elaborate blueprint for cushioning the unemployment impact of the Reagan administration's budget and program cuts, the job placement efforts so far have barely made a dent in the estimated 15,000 workers, including more than 4,200 from the Washington area, who are getting RIF (reduction-in-force) pink slips this fiscal year.

And though the president has said that helping RIFed employes is "a governmentwide imperative," most workers and personnel officers surveyed say hiring prospects have been bleak.

In this region, for example, only 10 federal employes had managed, as of last week, to secure jobs through the government's voluntary placement referral system, according to federal placement records. Those placements were all with other federal agencies.

To date, not a single private employer has hired a federal worker through the centralized system, according to those records, although officials are expecting hires to pick up in the weeks ahead.

The government's centralized referral service is not the only placement tool for federal workers who are being RIFed, and there have been some other employment successes.

But the magnitude of layoffs, the tight job market and the inexperience of those conducting the RIFs have made job hunting an ordeal for all but the most specially skilled and determined. Foul-ups and frustrations abound.

Some examples:

* An employe at the Department of Energy's soon-to-be-defunct gas rationing office dutifully filled out a form registering him for the government-run job referral service only to discover weeks later that his form had been lost by a placement officer before his name could be put into a computerized registry. His last day on the job is Sept. 25.

* At the Department of Health and Human Services, where 7,000 workers will be RIFed nationally by the end of October, some outplacement coordinators have had practically to beg other agencies to send them job vacancy announcements. In desperation, one former HHS employe has been enlisted to "smuggle" some hiring notifications out from the agency where he now works.

* Employes report how they have eagerly applied for the few openings they hear about, only to discover that as many as 100 to 250 other federal workers are competing for the same job.

Conversely, some placement officers say they have had employes whose jobs are in jeopardy calmly turn down roughly comparable employment offers elsewhere.

* The Community Services Administration, shutting down Sept. 30, recently hired a firm to show its 1,000 anti-poverty employes how to land private sector jobs. The firm, unfamiliar with the agency's work force or purpose, gave an upbeat presentation about all the job opportunities for engineers and computer specialists.

Scott Spiewak, an attorney with the Department of Energy's Economic Regulatory Administration, is so angry at the way the agency is handling RIFs that he and others are considering going to court to stop the displacements. He and all 1,200 employes in ERA and the Energy Information Administration have received general RIF notices, although few have definite word yet on who will go.

"There's no way an outplacement counselor can place 1,200 people," said Spiewak, 27, explaining why he has yet to avail himself of the agency's job-hunting services.

At the Community Services Administration, Noland Lewis, a senior community action program specialist, said he has signed up for his agency's services but has not been sent on one interview. His job, too, ends Sept. 30.

"There's just no real teeth in the placement services to force reassignments to other agencies," Lewis said.

A CSA placement coordinator agrees, saying his efforts have met with "limited success" and that many employes are discouraged from plugging into a program that "isn't panning out."

An HHS placement counselor complained she spends a third of her time "just answering questions and running interference because the federal agencies are being so uncooperative."

Employes facing the most job-hunting difficulties are the "generalists" and people in the social science or mental health fields. CSA and Public Health Service workers are having a particularly tough time because the programs where they have their expertise are being terminated.

Clerical and secretarial workers seem to have an easier time as do metallurgists, electrical engineers and others with technical or scientific backgrounds. Lower-salaried workers in these fields rather than the GS14 or 15s fare even better.

In a memorandum prepared for new Reagan administrators in January, Ed Preston, assistant director for federal personnel policy at the Office of Management and Budget, all but predicted that job placements would be spotty, particularly if agencies failed to give the RIF issue top management attention.

"Defense seems to manage these placement programs very well," Preston wrote. "But those run by most other agencies seem to have been less than effective, even with the priority given to employes through OPM's Office of Personnel Management formal Displaced Employes Program. Still, we should try."

Some federal employes and their advocates, however, do not think the government is trying hard enough to place civil servants in new jobs.

"What I'm getting from the employes calling in is that they submit their 171s government resume forms , sign up for placement programs and never hear from anyone again," said Robert Honig, staff director of the Federal Government Service Task Force chaired by Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.).

He argues that attrition could have eased the employment rolls less traumatically, and notes the RIFs will still cost the government $340 million in severance and other worker benefits pay.

Many agencies have issued general RIF alerts to all or large numbers of their workers to comply with the legal requirement to give employes 30 days' notice before termination.

This lets the agency buy time while preparing specific RIF announcements, but it totally disrupts the placement process. The targeted workers respond either by rushing to apply for jobs they aren't sure they should take or by sitting at their desks paralyzed with fear or disbelief.

"Crazy or not, people become frozen," said Zandy Leibowitz, a psychologist at the University of Maryland who has done some RIF counseling. "Until you have a specific RIF notice in your hand, the way you get up and go to work every morning is to pretend it isn't happening."

But most federal employes, especially those in agencies experiencing large or total RIFs, have been anxious to explore all job avenues. Many of these workers tend to be the people who have found the existing voluntary placement services well-meaning but largely useless.

Steve Davis, coordinating outplacement activities for OPM's Washington area office, says making it mandatory that agencies hire from the ranks of the RIFed, as some worker advocates have demanded, is not a good idea because experience has shown job vacancies "dry up very quickly when hiring is restricted to only displaced employes."

Nationally, OPM's voluntary placement program has accounted for 285 hires, including 42 by the private sector, according to the latest available figures, which are based on data through the end of July.

Davis, who concedes the job picture is "tough, but not impossible," said the regional office here has made 1,639 public and private job referrals since June for the 1,553 government workers registered in the program and expects placements, particularly in the private sector, to pick up by mid-September.

There have been some successes. The National Institutes of Health has hired more than 200 employes from the beleaguered Public Health Service. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission got into placement activities early and wound up RIFing only 35 workers instead of the planned 284.

The Department of Commerce has used an internal referral system, retirement and aggressive outplacement counseling with follow-up, to trim its RIF rolls from about 1,000 to about 450. Commerce's National Bureau of Standards has had good response from the private sector and other agencies.

A Department of Transportation spokesman reports that the head of its Coast Guard office in Baltimore turned up a number of offers for employes after writing to shipping and other maritime interests along the East Coast.

OPM's Davis agrees everyone could and should be making similar efforts. His office has tried to keep the pressure on agencies to hire RIFed workers first, but he warns that employes "are going to have to look out for themselves in the end."

Ceceil Coleman did that. A grants specialist at HHS' Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration in Rockville, she launched a methodical job search after learning her government job was in jeopardy after 17 years of service. Between May 22 and July 29 -- she knows because she kept a chart -- she applied for 21 jobs, and obtained three interviews.

On Aug. 12, one paid off. Coleman, 40, the sole support of her three children, started a new grants policy job at the Interior Department this week.

But Coleman's happy ending is not typical. She credits her success entirely to her own efforts, noting that the personnel office was not expected to issue her specific RIF notice until mid-September.

"If I had sat here and waited for the outplacement office to find me a job, without going on my own," Coleman says, "I'd have still been here Sept. 15."