The State Department has begun work on a pilot project to try to find paying jobs for spouses of Foreign Service members working abroad.

The project is in keeping with a recent amendment to the State Department authorization bill sponsored by Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.) The experiment apparently is the main response by State and Congress to an appeal by Marlene Eagleburger, wife of former undersecretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, and others that Foreign Service spouses be compensated for their service abroad.

The office of George S. Vest, director general of the Foreign Service, is in charge of planning the project, which probably will involve six to 10 overseas posts of varying size and hardship. The project, which will take several years, is expected to explore hiring qualified spouses to perform such jobs as caterer/managers for embassy functions and as community health workers for the embassy community.

The idea of paying spouses for work they already do, particularly entertaining and providing volunteer social services, has run into major practical and philosophical problems, according to Vest and William I. Bacchus, an aide who is in charge of the preliminary study for the project. What is being sought is "not a freebie for Foreign Service spouses," but real jobs with real qualifications, Bacchus said.

Susan Low of the American Association of Foreign Service Women, which helped push through the Mathias amendment, said she is pleased that the State Department seems to be taking the amendment and the pilot project seriously.

The status of spouses is one of many issues now facing Vest, a veteran of 38 years in the Foreign Service, including time as assistant secretary of state for European affairs and ambassador to the European Economic Community.

"The Foreign Service is becoming a more hazardous and more competitive profession," said Vest. Due to "up-or-out policies" now being implemented for midgrade officers, he added, there is much less certainty about the latter stages of an officer's career. He compared the situation to the U.S. Navy, where many officers retire as captains and only a few go on to be admirals.

Under previous laws, close to half of midgrade Foreign Service officers could expect to move up to the Senior Foreign Service in important and often prestigious jobs to cap their careers, according to Vest. But now that the department is implementing 1980 amendments to the Foreign Service Act, he said, probably only 28 to 30 percent will go on to the Senior Foreign Service in the future.

Already "we've made some headway" in reducing the number of senior "corridor walkers" who don't have useful jobs, Vest said. But he said no exact figures are available.

To smooth the way for early retirees, whose ranks will swell under the new policy, a special section in Vest's office under Donald Youso is trying to help departing Foreign Service officers find new jobs or adjust to retirement.

Vest seemed unperturbed about recent amendments sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), which were seen by the American Foreign Service Association as an attack on career State Department employes.

Vest said the independent inspector general authorized by one of the amendments will review fiscal and auditing operations, not political questions. Another amendment, which permits the chairman of the Board of Foreign Service to be a presidential appointee, rather than just a careerist as in the past, poses "no real threat" in the view of Vest.