The State Department held a most unusual reception for school officials in its Washington headquarters a few weeks ago. Ambassadors shook hands with high school business teachers; top-level administrators offered quiche, sipped coffee and poured on the charm to find out how best to recruit the fastest and brightest of this year's typing class.

At Hayfield Secondary School in Fairfax County, a similar pitch came in a flurry of federal recruiting. First, there was the FBI, then personnel representatives from the CIA, the Defense Department and the Office of Personnel Management.

Some with tests in hand, they made a play for what may be the most sought-after graduate around the Capital Beltway: a secretary.

The U.S. government in the past few months has begun its toughest campaign in years to attract clerical help. From the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda to the Department of Army in the Pentagon, federal personnel departments are competing more successfully against an increasingly expanding and better-paying private sector.

To lure those who can type, file and take dictation, the government recently has raised salaries in the Washington area by as much as 22 percent, increased the number of federal agencies authorized to test applicants, beefed up its exams to get better-qualified workers, and allowed agencies to hire their own staff members -- with flexitime options -- without going through the central bureaucracy of OPM.

The reasons for the clerical shortage, affecting a majority of federal departments, were highlighted in a report last year by a coalition of 12 agencies: Government pays less than the private sector, and government bureaucracy frustrates job applicants. Moreover, demographic changes have reduced the labor pool of young workers.

Recruiting clericals is particularly difficult in the Washington area, where unemployment is almost negligible and as many as 90 percent of graduating high school seniors in suburbs opt for college or technical school. Private employers in the fast-developing region complain frequently to local chambers of commerce about their need for more clerical workers, whose pay averages about $13,800 a year for entry level jobs. In government, an industry built on paper clips and steno pads, the need is acute but the pay is lower.

Nearly 79 percent of 61 federal agencies surveyed by the government last year reported a shortage of clerks, typists and stenographers. Thirteen percent of all stenographer, clerk-typist, secretarial and data-transcriber jobs were vacant. The turnover rate for clerical help was 38 percent.

The ramification of such figures are clear, according to LaVerne Linnenkamp, an employment specialist with OPM: "Phones are getting unanswered. Reports are going untyped. It can't help but slow down work -- and drive up the cost when the agency has to hire professional help.

"We're looking at displaced homemakers, the handicapped, people who have been looked at before as possible clerical workers," said Linnenkamp, who recently helped organize an unprecedented federal job fair for 66 needy agencies. The labor shortage "hit in the fast food industry first, and now it's spreading to these occupations."

Agencies have been forced to fill vacancies with candidates with minimal or deficient skills because they cannot find workers with good skills. Others have been delaying filling positions in the hope of finding prospects who can type the required 40 words per minute with few mistakes. Some agencies in need of stenographers have admitted defeat and instead hired clerk-typists, according to last year's report on the labor shortage.

The government has taken steps to alleviate the problem. Two months ago, annual salaries for beginning typists were raised from $10,816 to $13,262 to attract more applicants, and a typical secretary, a GS 5 who earned $16,304, received a 10 percent raise.

In March, OPM authorized 13 additional federal offices in Virginia, Maryland and the District to test potential applicants. Some agencies such as the United States Information Agency completed studies, found similar shortages and began hitting the road to find workers in small towns such as Butler, Pa., 35 miles northwest of Pittsburgh in an area still recovering from manufacturing setbacks.

"We tried to recruit in Northern Virginia and found that people wouldn't cross the bridge. There was no need to. With businesses like Mobil Oil there, they could do better by staying closer to home," said Blanche Twardowski, chief of the special services branch of USIA.

The fight the government is waging remains an uphill battle for reasons peculiar to the Washington area -- such as high costs for housing and transportation -- and the nature of the work.

The pay raises approved this spring bring government pay closer to -- but not higher than -- the levels private firms pay. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a typist in a private business was paid an average of $13,780 in 1986, $3,000 more than a beginning typist in a government job.

The difference between private and public sector pay appeared to shrink to $600 -- with government still on the low end -- with the pay raise announced in April. But figures expected to be released in the next two weeks by the bureau will indicate that private employers here have done what government employment directors feared: raised wages. Those increases are expected to mimic raises earned throughout the Washington area for clerical workers in 1985 and 1986, which were slightly more than 5 percent.

"Generally there's an upward movement that has to do with the cost of living," said John Buckley, a bureau economist. "It's a response to increasing costs."

The high cost of living in the Washington area also deters potential clerical workers from moving to this area. Housing is the biggest concern of office workers whom federal agencies have tried to bring into the nation's capital, employment specialists said. Assistance programs to match workers with roommates have begun at some agencies, but nothing can cut the cost of owning a house in the Washington area, they said.

In addition, transportation costs deter new workers from coming to the area. Officials in seventy-two percent of the agencies surveyed last year said they were willing to consider typists and stenographers who lived outside the Washington area. But only 13 percent were willing, or had the funds available, to pay travel and transportation costs to relocate the personnel.

With some success, employment specialists in OPM are encouraging individual agencies to assess and tackle their needs better. The National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health complex, began a pilot project last month to generate clerical applicants. It mailed 3,000 brochures throughout the Bethesda area advertising part-time and full-time jobs in which applicants could "set your own hours . . . {and} work when you are available."

The CIA last year opted to forgo the civil service pay scale and provide annual salaries beginning at $14,284. One recruiter, speaking to a group at a seminar in Reston, described the higher pay as a commitment by the CIA to keep its staff. "It's comparable to what you could get on the outside," she said. "We're trying to locate good secretaries who will stay with us."

For its own part in trying to locate quality help, OPM has confounded some by toughening requirements for beginning workers but has encouraged others by creating special salary levels for some college graduates.

OPM now allows people to substitute college experience for clerical experience and begin as a GS 4 clerk typist, receiving $15,016 instead of the base $13,284. In some cases, that enhanced salary is more than a college graduate might receive in a professional-track job in the government, such as a personnel specialist who is paid $14,800.

At the same time, OPM has ordered a tougher clerical exam to cut marginal applicants from the labor pool. It is true that more potential employes will be eliminated, employment specialists said, but hope behind the new test is that workers who do make the grade will be more efficient and more productive, which could cut staffing needs.

Time will tell if all of OPM's ploys can be called a success, but agency figures so far seem to show that something is working. In March 1986, 1,967 people applied for government work. A year later, 2,450 potential workers filled out applications, according to OPM records.

"Right now, we're in a major transition," said Karen Magee, personnel staffing specialist for the State Department. "It's too early to tell the results, but it looks encouraging."