When Mary Myers was working on her economics degree at Radcliffe College, she figured the best way to assure herself of a job after graduation was to start her own business while still in school.
The idea wasn't too far out. ''I come from an entrepreneurial family,'' she says, ''and my father is in business for himself.''
A consulting firm would be easy to launch, she reasoned, and she could put experts from the Cambridge, Mass., area on retainer to work for her. Inspired by a Business Week article on industrial cost control, she teamed up with a friend to launch a firm that would advise companies on saving energy.
The timing was certainly right: She started this first firm in 1973. It has evolved into Energy Investment Inc., with offices in Boston and a nationwide clientele.
Now she's beginning to feel like an old-timer. ''We've been in business 71/2 years, and we've got a real staff, and a real office now.'' And her firm is beginning to reap a harvest of repeat business and referrals.
But business is down over the past year, she says frankly, because of the strained economy - high interest rates and corporate liquidity problems. Even prosperous companies are holding off on capital investment for energy conservation, despite the fact that a good program can pay for itself within a couple of years.
Many observers have bemoaned what seems to be America's limited collective attention span on the energy issue. But Ms. Myers attributes her firm's current slowdown to the recession, not to any perception in industry that ''the energy crisis is over.''
Rather, she says, ''It's not a crisis anymore - it's just a part of good management to conserve energy intelligently.''
Since starting the firm, she has seen an ''enormous shift'' in the sophistication of her client companies on energy conservation.
Energy Investment Inc. has just developed an energy-savings plan for the Prudential Insurance Company's Boston office tower. The plan is projected to cut energy costs some 13 percent - even though Prudential had already managed to trim the costs some 30 percent over the past five or six years by drawing on in-house expertise.
Companies' own energy management departments are in fact her biggest competition. And then there are firms offering energy management consulting as an adjunct to their product sales. Honeywell Inc., for example, sells energy-managing computers for buildings.
For all the increased sophistication and new energy consciousness, however, numbers suggest the United States is indeed losing ground on energy efficiency.
Paul Schaffer of Energy User News, New York, cites some figures his publication has put together for energy use per unit of output. For calendar 1981, the industrial sector used 88.1 percent of the energy used in 1979; for the 12 months ending March 31, 1982, it used 88.5 percent. This figure is still under that for 1979, but obviously the trend is up. The recession, however, with its lower use of plant capacity, could be the main reason for this trend.
The commercial sector's energy use for 1981 was 91.7 percent of the 1979 base - but for the 12 months ending March 31, 1982, the figure is 92.6. The residential sector did the worst of all three: up from 92.0 for 1981 to 93.0 for the 12 months through the end of March 1982. One factor in these two areas was the cold winter.
''In the long term, we've obviously created some improvement, but in the short term, we've lost ground,'' Mr. Schaffer says, blaming the recession.''
''A lot of the easy stuff has already been done, and industry is no longer in a good position to make big-ticket investments'' in energy conservation, he adds.
One way to plot the energy-efficiency curve is to consider the number of Btu required to produce a constant (1972) dollar of gross national product. This chart shows how it has taken less energy over the past few years to produce the same amount of goods and services. In 1982, however, this trend slightly reversed itself as Americans became less energy efficient. 1982 54,600 Btu/$1 1981 53,800 Btu/$1 1980 57,000 Btu/$1 1979 60,800 Btu/$1 1978 61,600 Btu/$1 1977 62,500 Btu/$1