When the Montgomery County school system created a special vocational center, it stocked it with fancy equipment including a $26,000 warehouse forklift and $28,000 worth of machinery to bend sheet metal.

But in the four years since then, the center never has offered a class in warehousing or sheet metal. Not enough students have been interested in taking the classes.

This year, Montgomery abandoned courses in cosmetology, graphics, car mechanics and agriculture at three county high schools. They were the only electives canceled in the county, and they, too, were casualties of teen-agers' powerful aspirations for careers with high social status.

The percentage of Montgomery high school students taking vocational classes is among the lowest in Maryland. Compared with most other school systems in the Washington metropolitan area, very few students are enrolled in special, vocational centers.

Montgomery's Edison Center -- a premier facility attached to Wheaton High School that is meant to attract 920 students from around the county -- today is half empty.

Its enrollment plunged by 100 students in the last year alone.

"It really is a tough situation," said School Superintendent Harry Pitt.

"There definitely {should be} a market to fill up the Edison Center and have kids falling out of the windows because there isn't room for them," said Montgomery County Council President Michael L. Subin, who, before he joined the council, led a citizens group that examined how many vocational centers the county needs. "But it is only operating at 50 percent. Something is wrong."

To explain the empty seats, educators cite new, more rigorous high school graduation requirements in Maryland that have left students with less time for electives. They point out, too, that Montgomery's high school enrollment is declining.

But the heart of the matter, educators and students say, is that classes that teach students to set type, book airline reservations and repair leaky faucets are out of sync with the values of people in a county in which four out of five high school graduates go to college. That far exceeds the Maryland and national rate of 50 to 60 percent.

"Especially in some of the more affluent areas, parents would want to shoot a guidance counselor who told a child to train to become a mechanic," said Andrew Herscowitz, a senior at Churchill High School in Potomac, who is the student member of the county's school board.

"There are kids who would probably like it, but they're afraid to admit it," said Rupa Tanna, a sophomore at Paint Branch High School near Burtonsville, who is the student member of the school system's vocational advisory council.

"The mindset is, 'I'm going to college, and make all this money, have my own desk and my own secretary,' " said Robert Carey, the guidance director at Silver Spring's Montgomery Blair High School, which sends 85 students to Edison, more than any other high school in the county. "There are a lot of students {for whom} there is no way that is going to happen, in our professional opinion. But it permeates everywhere in this county."

In school systems that are poorer, more rural or more urban than Montgomery, educators would be elated if more students aspired to college. But in Montgomery, educators say, the go-to-college ethic is so strong that students -- including those with little realistic chance of a college education -- are rejecting an alternative route to productive, well-paying jobs.

"If they were exposed to something like this," said Stanley Gordon, the advisory council's chairman, "they could be very successful in life."

This ethic has another side-effect: It contributes to an impending labor shortage in the county.

"The demand in all the trades is growing," said Dyan Lingle, Montgomery's director of economic development, although she could not cite figures to document the trend. "Looking at today and the future, we see a big, growing demand in these job categories, and we do not see a growing labor force."

"We do need high-tech research and development," said Robert E. Parilla, president of Montgomery College, which has affiliated with the school system to try to draw high school students into vocational programs they can continue at the two-year college. "But . . . if you can't get your car fixed or get your elevator fixed in the office building you work in, then we've got a difficulty."

If vocational training is an educational step-child in Montgomery, the school system is not alone.

Nationally, the number of high school students in vocational classes -- particularly traditional trades such as carpentry or plumbing -- has been dropping throughout the 1980s to about 10 million today, according to the Alexandria-based American Vocational Association.

In many school systems, vocational education is criticized as antiquated, teaching students on outmoded equipment or preparing them for jobs that may be obsolete.

Nobody levels that kind of criticism in Montgomery County. Vocational programs there are contemporary and well-equipped.

Apart from the Edison Center, students in many of the county's high schools can learn, for instance, to type on a word-processor, fix a car or give a haircut.

And Edison -- built as part of a $15 million renovation of Wheaton High -- draws consistent praise for an innovative curriculum. "It is highly sophisticated," said Addison Hobbs, the Maryland Department of Education's assistant superintendent for vocational-technical education.

Students there, who spend a half day at the center and the other half at their local high schools, run a used car lot, selling to the public automobiles they have repaired themselves. Students in the carpentry, masonry, plumbing and electricity programs build two houses per year. The graphics department has offset presses, computerized typesetting machings and a commercial photo studio.

A medical careers program offers internships at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Child care students run a day care center for neighborhood preschoolers. And hotel-travel students learn to manage a hotel front desk, complete with computerized reservation system.

"It gives you training so you know what you're doing," said Miriam Castano, a senior, as she practiced word-processing on an IBM computer. "I'm going to have more experience than most people" coming out of high school.

Her expectations are borne out in the jobs secured by recent Edison graduates. One is in charge of the concierge department at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Bethesda. Another works as a car body painter at a local Porsche dealer. A third is almost ready for his master plumber's license, which will enable him to command fees of $25 to $30 per hour.

But the enthusiasm of students and successes of alumni hasn't translated into popularity for Edison. The welding program has just six students, drafting 14, and plumbing 15. Each has room for 40.

"We don't expect to be the No. 1 priority in the school system," said Robert Laird, Edison's director. "But at the same time, there are a lot more kids who could profit."

It is difficult to compare the popularity of vocational classes in Montgomery directly with that in nearby school systems, because of variations in vocational programs and the way enrollments are counted. But Prince George's has 2,467 students -- more than five times as many as at Edison -- in three vocational centers, and the District enrolls about 2,800 students at seven centers.

Fairfax administrators say they, too, have recently closed auto mechanic, cosmetology and horticulture programs, but about 40,000 students in ninth through 12th grade take at least one vocational class, 17,000 of them a business class such as typing. In Montgomery, a school system about one-fourth smaller than Fairfax, 7,121 students in 10th through 12th grades take an occupational course.

In Montgomery, there is disagreement over who, precisely, is responsible for the low vocational enrollments.

Some contend principals and guidance counselors have not publicized the job-training classes and, sometimes, have deterred students.

"In the past we have done a very, very poor job," said John Goodloe, the school system's guidance supervisor. "I know an honors student may have said, 'Gee, I wonder what it would be like to take a plumbing class,' and that child was discouraged by a school counselor."

Still others say students, and their parents, are simply unreceptive.

"We try to point out to many of the kids this is a very, very viable option," said Carey, the Blair guidance director, "but . . . I see a subtle stigma, 'Hey, if I go there, I am not in the "in" crowd, in the academic crowd.'

"Even hard-core kids, who have no advantages and {come} from communities and homes {in which} you would question how much they value education, even these youngsters say, 'Hey, college is for me.' " Besides, Carey said, "There are some parents who will not consider Edison."

"It is a social thing," said Tanna, the Paint Branch sophomore on the advisory council, who said she had never taken a vocational class. "Ninety-nine percent of the honors students wouldn't even think of it. If it was on their resume, the Ivy League schools wouldn't like it."

As Edison has struggled for students, parents in Montgomery's fast-growing northern and western communities have been clamoring for a similar facility near them. Although Edison is open to students from any county high school, bus rides are provided from just a dozen schools in the county's southern and eastern sections.

Last year, the school board included a new center in its capital budget, but it was cut by the County Council.

The board has not renewed its request, reasoning that it couldn't justify a second center when it hasn't filled the first.

Now, worries are surfacing about whether Edison is becoming vulnerable to reductions in teachers and its expensive programs. There haven't been any so far, but with 400 empty seats, "I don't think the school system can do this indefinitely," said Theodore Rybka, the school system's director of career and vocational education.

"I'm going to try holding on," Pitt, the superintendent, said. "I hope we can find the kids to fill it."

To try, the school system has started a marketing campaign for what it has begun to call "career" education -- a term educators hope will have a connotation more favorable than "vocational" has had.

Edison has a new motto -- "Excellence at Work" -- and the school system has made a videotape that features images of the center's equipment and of well-satisfied alumni who have landed good local jobs.

Edison's administrators are redoubling their efforts to talk up the center with high school principals, counselors and students. They are trying to portray its curriculum as a component of -- not a surrogate for -- students' preparation for college, pointing out that half of Edison's graduates pursue further education.

"I want to send the message, 'Hey we have something good here,' " Laird, the director, said. "But that is a very difficult thing to do."