After 10 years at System Planning Corp. in Arlington, Rita DeSouza had risen to the rank of administrative assistant, was earning a $40,000 salary and had just agreed to buy a town house. She was a seasoned professional.

So when her boss told her in August that she had been "surplused," she first thought she was being promoted.

Hardly. She was being laid off.

Unemployed, DeSouza could not go through with the town house purchase. Because she had already sold her condominium, she had to move into a rented apartment. Now, she must start job hunting.

"I haven't told my mother yet," DeSouza said. "I sit at home and stare at the wall."

DeSouza and thousands of professionals like her give a distinctive, white-collar shading to the ranks of Washington's unemployed.

As defense, real estate, retail and financial companies have laid off workers and otherwise shrunk their staffs, a growing class of unemployed managers, consultants, engineers, architects and real estate agents has emerged.

"When I went to apply for unemployment benefits, there were two bricklayers in the room and 20 professionals," DeSouza said.

"I have 22 years of experience and all they {prospective employers} want to know is, how fast can I type. I'm going to have to start all over again, at half my former salary."

For many workers, losing a job can be like suffering a death in the family. Employment counselors say that is particularly true for professionals and even more so in a fast-paced competitive area like this one, where personal identities are so closely tied to occupations. If the work goes, many respond by losing hope, sitting at home and staring.

When calls for advice from people hit by job losses began pouring in to Fairfax County's Career Development Center for Women in August, normally a slow time, officials knew something extraordinary was happening. Worried about the effect of layoffs on pocketbooks and psyches, they promptly scheduled an open session on handling job loss -- with a therapist as the introductory speaker.

"You want an economic indicator? Here we are," Elizabeth Lee McManus, director of the center, said as the session was getting underway. "We have had calls from a lot of middle managers. Yesterday, I talked to an MBA who had made $55,000 in his last job. He came here with his wife when she got a job, and he's been looking for eight months."

There are still plenty of casualties of the area's slowing economy who fit the more traditional definition of the unemployed worker: someone from a blue-collar trade and with no more than a high-school education. At last count, the region's construction industry had lost 12,000 jobs over the last 12 months, for instance. Workers in such real-estate related industries as plumbing, roofing and janitorial services are experiencing layoffs.

But the ranks of the unemployed look a great deal like the ranks of the employed, with a preponderance of consultants, contractors, computer programmers, federal employees and the like. With hardly any manufacturing in this area, companies that need to cut costs often must do so by laying off middle managers and other professionals.

Unlike the nation as a whole, where blue-collar workers account for the largest share of those receiving unemployment benefits, professionals in the District are the largest group receiving jobless payments. More than one-quarter of those whoProfessionals in the District are the largest group receiving jobless payments. receive unemployment benefits are professional, technical and managerial workers.

The next-largest category, clerical and sales workers, accounts for 25 percent of unemployment beneficiaries. And 21 percent of those receiving benefits are service workers.

In Northern Virginia, the proportion is even larger: More than 43 percent of unemployment recipients are in the professional category, 19 percent are clerical, 15 percent are industrial and 5.5 percent are in services.

Nationwide, only 18 percent of unemployment recipients are professional, technical or managerial, while 49.5 percent fall into the industrial category, a broad class that includes construction and manufacturing. About 19 percent are clerical and 8.1 percent are service workers.

"We see a lot of professionals -- a lot of people in mortgage banking and banking, accounting, engineering, architecture," said John Watterson, a supervisor at the Falls Church office of the Virginia Employment Commission's job-placement agency.

Applications to the placement service are up 14 percent compared with last year, he said, while the number of job listings is down 18 percent.

According to the most recent statistics, 73,300 people were jobless in the Washington area in August. That is 15,400 more than during the same month last year -- but many of the newly jobless are not reflected in the figures.

The self-employed, for instance, are not counted as unemployed, even though they can lose income as fast as someone who is terminated.

At a recent job fair in Herndon specializing in high-technology employment, for instance, a self-employed computer salesman said he was there looking for contract work because his customer base was disappearing.

"There are too many applicants chasing too few jobs," said the man, who asked not to be named, as he looked around the crowded halls of the hotel hosting the fair. Lines at some of the employers' suites were 12 to 15 people long, many of the applicants wearing three-piece suits and carrying leather briefcases.

One of them, Albert Stunn, a specialist in systems operations who had been laid off from a division of McDonnell Douglas Corp. in July, said that jobs for people at his level seemed to be scarce. "There are lots of jobs, but they're for junior computer programmers," he said.

Attendance at the fair, sponsored by The Washington Post, was 7,500, a substantial rise from the fair the previous year. Another, more general three-day job fair late last month attracted over 16,000 applicants, 4,000 more than the same fair the previous year. And many of those job seekers were managers and professionals.

"We got a lot more mid- and upper-level management {applicants} than we had expected," said Brenda Johnson, an employment specialist with the Hecht Co. who took applications at the general job fair.

"A lot of the jobs that are available are entry-level jobs and most of the candidates are mid- to upper-management."

Among the applicants she saw: former employees of Garfinckel's, which has closed, and Kay Jewelers, which has been sold.

Registrations for the Fairfax career center's session on handling job loss, originally planned for 60 people, had to be cut off when they topped 80.

"More people go to see a therapist over issues of job loss than that any other time," counselor Myra Binns Bridgforth told those attending, many of them wearing business suits or dresses. Heads nodded knowingly as she talked of losing self-worth and of the feeling that their lives had gone out of control.

Many at the session had been laid off only recently. Others had taken a chance -- gone back to school, left work to raise a child -- and had discovered the labor market had closed up during their absence. Still others faced the choice of relocating or shifting their work assignments in order to stay with the same employer. Most said their lives were disrupted and their friends not terribly understanding.

"I feel like a disabled person who comes in contact with an able-bodied person. They don't want to be confronted with your disability," said a mid-level worker who had been with his company for 10 years and now must either relocate or find another job.

Another man had gone back to school at night to begin what was to be a mid-life career change while he worked his regular job during the day. Three weeks after classes began, he was laid off. Now, he organizes his days to keep his spirits up: Monday to revise his resume, Tuesday to work on the family finances, Wednesday to begin the job search and so on.

The fading economy has given Debbie Lynn one blow after another. When she left her job as a technical secretary for a defense contractor to have a baby, she assumed she would return. But while she was on leave at home in Alexandria, her department was eliminated.

She didn't like the replacement job she was offered, so she changed careers and went to work in the head office of a local child-care center chain, where her son was cared for at a discount. Seven months later, she was laid off. Now she can't sleep at night, has lost her appetite and can't find child care to allow her to search for a job.

"I never even had to look for a job before," Lynn said in a shaky voice. "I've always worked."