After three months in the job, the State Department's senior manager, Jerome W. Van Gorkom, says the thing that impresses him most is the caliber of the people he finds around him. To the retired business executive, who describes himself as "a total novice" in a top government post, this is both a pleasant surprise and an important fact.

Van Gorkom had just retired after 18 years as chief executive officer of a diversified company, Trans Union Corp., when Secretary of State George P. Shultz asked him last August to become his undersecretary for management.

In the argot of industry, Van Gorkom said in an interview, a firm such as State would be called "a people business": it has staff, but little in the way of factories or inventory.

When he had a chance to look into the department's recruiting practices, Van Gorkom said, he discovered why the quality is high. In the current year, for example, State has 150 places for new junior officers--and 27,000 people have applied for the jobs. Of the applicants, about 20,000 will take the Foreign Service examination, and about 2,500 of the most promising prospects will be granted a personal interview.

An early task for Van Gorkom is a study, commissioned by Shultz, of better ways to manage the people side of this people business. No conclusions yet, the undersecretary said, except that it is "like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle" to move 9,000 Foreign Service officers and their families among posts in 136 countries every two to four years, in ways that take account of their needs as well as the government's. ***

PASSPORT PRESSURE . . . The strong dollar and a ticket price war for overseas airline flights are producing a record number of American tourists abroad, and a rapidly mounting work load for the Passport Office. If the surge continues, said Diego C. Asencio, assistant secretary for consular affairs, more than 4 million passports will be issued this year, and possibly as many as 4.5 million. Last year, a record 3.6 million passports were issued.

J. Donald Blevins, deputy assistant secretary for passport services, says that overtime, night shifts and increased computerization are being used to cope with the passport tide. ***

NEW FACES . . . A new policy maker in the front office of the Bureau of African Affairs is Leonard H. Robinson Jr., 40, previously director of the international development study center of the Battelle Memorial Institute. Among other accomplishments, the deputy assistant secretary was cited by Sears, Roebuck and Co. as an "outstanding black American." ***

AND THEN I SAY . . . Wondering who can clear, "How do you do?" According to a written statement issued by the press office in response to a reporter's question, Foreign Service officers are not required to obtain advance clearance for informal conversations with foreign diplomats at receptions and such.

In "obviously structured negotiations," however, words and ideas should be controlled by "appropriate officials," said the published guideline. "The more formal the occasion, the greater the degree of control of the substance of the conversation."