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Upbeat view on jobs picture

When the Bureau of Labor Statistics published the unemployment figures for January showing a further decline in the jobless rate, Lacy H. Hunt ''really felt good,'' as he put it.

This economist with Carroll McEntee & McGinley Inc., a Wall Street bond house , last month forecast a sharper drop in the unemployment rate than generally expected this year. The January figure, with the civilian unemployment rate dropping to 8 percent from 8.2 percent in December, showed his prediction was coming true.

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''If I am right and trends mature the way I think they will, President Reagan will be able to run on the claim that 7 million jobs were created during his tenure,'' Dr. Hunt said. ''He is in an enviable position on the economic standpoint. Now if he can just get out of Lebanon. . . .''

The labor force has already grown 4.5 million during the Reagan administration. Dr. Hunt expects rapid growth in the number of new jobs this year to bring the jobless rate down to 7.5 percent by midyear and 6.9 percent by the last quarter. A survey of some twoscore economists by Blue Chip Economic Indicators reckons on unemployment declining to 6.7 percent by that quarter. The President's Council of Economic Advisers has cautiously forecast unemployment at 7.7 percent in the last quarter, only 0.2 percent below where it is now.

Ironically, the administration is reversing the usual pattern of an election year and taking a gloomier position on unemployment than the consensus of private economists.

Dr. Hunt assumes a slightly faster growth in the nation's output of goods and services this year than the administration does - 4.8 percent rather than 4.5 percent. But his optimism regarding the supply of jobs is based mainly on two other points:

* When the unemployment rate rose sharply in 1982, the labor force grew much more sharply than it should have, given the underlying situation in spending and production trends in the economy, he says. This is because ''secondary workers'' - primarily women, but also some teen-agers - flooded into the job market seeking work and incomes to replace those lost within the family.

That situation is now being reversed. As men go back to work, some of their wives are deciding to stay home. The 1982 shift also ''drained away'' some of the potential labor force growth this year.

* Four leading indicators of the labor market suggest that further improvement in the job situation is likely over the next several months, Dr. Hunt says.

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The manufacturing workweek in December was at a very high level of 40.5 hours , 3.8 percent above the recession trough. It rose to 40.9 hours in January. That is the highest level since April 1973, when the economy was booming. The increase in the workweek has been greater than in any of the post-1960 recoveries.

Average factory overtime was 3.4 hours, the same as in December. The last time overtime totaled 3.4 hours was in July 1979, and then nonagricultural payroll employment improved in each of the following nine months. Overtime has risen 47.8 percent since the end of the recession in November 1982, again the best gain for all post-1960 recoveries.

Also there has been a rapid increase in help-wanted advertising. In December, the Conference Board index was up about 6 percent from the month before, which in turn was up 46.2 percent from the recession's trough. Again, this is up more than is usual in upturns.

Finally, the percentage of industries reporting increased employment is relatively large - 67 percent. There were 100,000 jobs added in manufacturing in January, 103,000 in construction, 36,000 in retailing.

These indicators lead Dr. Hunt to conclude that business, seeing the demand for its goods increase handsomely, has first tried to increase production by stepping up the length of the workweek to ''extreme levels'' through overtime. Now, however, business must hire more workers to get greater production.

''The near-term outlook for the labor markets is bright indeed,'' he says.

In fact, if Dr. Hunt is correct, the unemployment rate could be lower at election time than the 7.4 percent when President Reagan took office.

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