CHICAGO (AP) _ Unemployment didn't interrupt executive Doug Meneely's daily routine of putting on a coat and tie, grabbing his briefcase and catching a train from his suburban home to a downtown high-rise office.

Meneely, a banker for 18 years, spent most of the last eight months job hunting from the comfortable confines of a Chicago outplacement firm, where he was given guidance and temporary quarters.

Outplacement firms have come of age during this recession, with billings rising from $325 million in 1988 to $550 million in 1991.

The gloomy economy has seen white-collar unemployment soar, with 917,000 professionals and executives entering 1992 unemployed - up 39.6 percent from July 1990 when the recession began.

When Continental Bank sold its retail operations in 1988, Meneely, 44, lost his job as vice president and general manager of retail operations - the only job there he wanted. He arranged his own exit, with severance, last April.

At Janotta, Bray & Associates Inc., one of Chicago's oldest and largest outplacement firms, Meneely joined dozens of white-collar unemployed.

He received a job counselor, secretarial services, college-educated co- workers (other out-of-work executives) and a professional environment complete with tasteful art prints on the walls.

He even found new golfing buddies among his fellow white-collar unemployed.

In exchange, Janotta, Bray received about 15 percent of the last salary paid to Meneely - roughly the industry average.

''You can't work out of your home. It just doesn't work,'' says Andy Knudsen, 37, a former senior vice president for a national corporate-travel management firm.

''For me, I've got two little kids. I've got all kinds of distractions,'' says Knudsen, who commutes to the outplacement firm each day from the far north suburb of Green Oaks.

''I need to be down in the city. This is where all my contacts and interviews are, and where the action is,'' he says.

Meneely landed a new position just this month, as head of human resources for Alberto-Culver, the personal-care products maker, which employs 5,700.

Knudsen, who hit the market in October, is still looking.

Some execs actually can stay motivated without a corporate environment.

Mike Krause, a former $172,000-a-year vice president and general manager of Europe for Fisher Price, spent 17 months job hunting from his home in Orchard Park, N.Y., after Quaker Oats Co. spun off its toy maker in 1990.

Krause, now 51, worked through Chicago-based outplacement specialist Baiocchi Rincker & Associates Inc., which handles only top-level executives, averaging $200,000 annually.

Armed with a fax machine and a home computer, Krause sent 2,400 copies of his resume to headhunters, prospective employers and possible investment partners in an effort to find a new avenue for his executive skills.

''In my case, there's just my wife and I, I didn't find it too distracting'' to work at home, said Krause, whose children are in college.

He recently got a job as senior vice president for operations of Goody Products Inc., a hair care product maker based in Kearny, N.J.

Krause said a rule of thumb is that for every $10,000 in salary an executive makes, it will take a month of searching to locate a new position.

Don Baiocchi, a partner in Baiocchi Rincker, said companies have stepped up financial assistance to their laid-off executives, often extending up to a year's severance and benefits.

But many executives who get the boot - whether because of cutbacks, a merger, a takeover or their own deficient job performance - are totally unprepared.

''People don't think it's going to happen to them,'' says Janotta, Bray midwest managing director Donald Wilson. ''So that when it does, even though all the signs are there that it could happen, they're devastated.''

With job search times increasing, Janotta, Bray is careful lest anyone settle in too comfortably, says Wilson.

''We do not assign the same office to you every day,'' he says. ''There is a method to our madness. We want to reinforce the fact this is not home.''

Clients must take their belongings with them when they leave. The early birds each day select windowed offices; late comers receive ''just a closet,'' where motivation is definitely harder to muster, Meneely said.