Many of the Pentagon's 26,000 workers are finding that the key to upward mobility may lie in the keyboard of a computer.

In an effort to streamline job hunting at the Department of Defense, the Pentagon's personnel department last month installed the Job Opportunity Awareness System. It provides anyone who can get into the building a detailed, up-to-date list of many Defense Department jobs available in the United States and overseas.

"Every once in a while, something happens that's all up-sides and no down-sides," said Leon Kniaz, director of personnel and security for the office of the secretary of Defense. " . . . We're not even talking about the usual DOD megabucks. We're talking about thousands, not even hundreds of thousands."

The computers sit in makeshift wooden frames on the edge of the Pentagon's main concourse, attracting lines of Defense Department job-seekers sometimes three deep. The goal is to improve the size and quality of the applicant pool for Defense Department positions, and the system may be a problem-solver for the personnel office if programmers can keep the postings up to date and make the data accessible by people outside the Pentagon.

Project organizers estimate that since the system's first two terminals opened on May 1, about 7,000 people have stopped by the computer station, either for a serious job search or just to try it out for entertainment. Two more terminals have been added, and personnel officials say they are considering several ways of expanding the program.

The system has attracted the attention of at least one other federal agency, the Office of Personnel Management, which plans later this summer to open an even more sophisticated job-information system at its Washington office to help place the hundreds of thousands of job-seekers who contact the agency every year.

OPM officials only recently realized that the Pentagon had been working on a similar project, said Frank Gavin, assistant director of the OPM's exam services.

Pentagon project organizers are considering extending the service to Defense Department branch offices throughout the Washington area, listing job opportunities offered by several small department agencies not yet involved in the project, and keeping the system open 24 hours a day. Organizers say they hope also to install terminals in public-access areas of the Pentagon so the computers will be accessible to everyone, including the unemployed.

Pentagon administrators hit on the idea about five years ago when they were searching for a way to simplify hiring and recruitment practices for the federal government's largest employer. Before the advent of the system, people interested in finding or changing jobs in the Pentagon often had to make inquiries and fill out forms in as many as five different offices.

The Defense Department's major branches -- the offices of the Army, Navy, Air Force, secretary of defense and Joint Chiefs of Staff -- still operate their own personnel offices, but the job-search computer system makes it possible for those offices to focus their efforts on evaluating applicants and filling the specific needs of their departments.

"{The computers} help people looking for jobs because it takes forever to walk all the way around the building to the different offices," said Sharon Williams, a secretary in the Navy's civilian personnel office, "and it helps personnel offices because we don't have many people just stopping in and looking anymore."

The computers take users through a five-step process that results in a list of job openings for which they are qualified. Using a key pad of 10 digits, job-seekers answer questions about where they live, where they are interested in working, their current job grade and the type of job for which they are qualified -- professional, administrative, technical, clerical or other.

After job-seekers tap all the right numbers, the terminals produce a printed copy of the jobs that were listed on the screen. Codes on the printout correspond to more detailed job descriptions available at a desk next to the computers.

"Blip, blip, blip. Just like that," said Shelby Walker, a Pentagon secretary with an eye on moving up the ladder. "I took just five minutes. This thing is pretty neat."

The computer is also the Pentagon's newest toy, according to Ruth Hayes, a personnel clerk who manages the office behind the terminals and watches people use the system every day. "Some people like to play with it," she said. "They push SES {Senior Executive Service} just to see what's there. They know they don't qualify, but they push it anyway."