The Northern Virginia Builders Association, whose members say they have a shortage of skilled carpenters, has begun a six-week pre-apprenticeship program to introduce beginning workers to the trade.

The program's director, Bruce Milam, calls the shortage "desperate." He said it is partly the result of a decreased emphasis by high schools on vocational skills. Recent cold winters, which slowed construction in this area, also forced some skilled workers to go further south to find jobs, he said.

The Northern Virginia program emphasizes elementary skills needed to get a beginning carpentry job, Milam said. Four weeks of classroom instruction are followed by two weeks of on-the-job training. The first 15 students finished the course yesterday.

The builders association surveyed its 230 members and found that their greatest labor need was for experienced carpenters, Milam said. Builders waste time and money hiring people who have no carpentry skills, he said.

"There is no way to tell whether someone is a carpenter. Anyone can walk off the street and say he is one," Milam said.

The program is not designed to teach the whole trade, he said. To become a fully-qualified journeyman carpenter, a person must be an apprentice for four years, he pointed out.

Milam said it is often difficult for a person to get started in carpentry because working carpenters usually don't have the time to teach newcomers. He said he hopes the program will solve this problem, as well as give builders in the Northern Virginia association workers they know are committed to learning the trade.

Milam said he interviews all the applicants to determine each person's commitment. The applicants have been a diverse group. The average age of the last group was 23 years, he said, and included at least four college graduates.

Sheila Galagan, one of three young women who just completed the class, graduated from the University of Wisconson six years ago. After working for a bank for three years, she said she found it "dull and boring sitting behind a desk all day," so she took up carpentry, having enjoyed building things since she was a child.

Galagan had done some carpentry on her own before starting in the association's program, but she joined it to get a job with a contractor, whom she feels she will give her more varied work experience. She said she would eventually like to start her own building business.

Many of the students in the program said they were attracted by the association's promise of a job after they finished the six-week training period. Milam said he has had no problem finding jobs with association members.

The Northern Virginia program was initiated by the National Association of Home Builders, which has similar programs in 16 other states. The programs are funded by the Department of Labor under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act.

No such program is currently under way in Suburban Maryland, said Susan Matlick, spokeswoman for the home builders' association there. A carpentry training program was set up in the early 1970s but was stopped after several years when the recession hit.

Lewis Pugh, secretary-treasurer of the district council of the local carpenters union, said the shortage of carpenters is the result of an increase in building activity in the last several months. Most of his union's members work on commercial building projects. Union scale are about 25 percent higher than wages paid carpenters on residential home projects, Pugh said.

Carpenters who do home construction work are 99.9 percent non-union, Milam noted.

Pugh said the union has its own four-year apprenticeship program, which has about 600 students.