With the US unemployment rate at last inching downward from its recession high - now down to 8.7 percent - Washington needs to target appropriate programs to aid unemployed Americans who will not be going back to their old jobs under the best of economic conditions. Unfortunately, there are millions of these persons - the so-called structurally unemployed.
As economists point out, structural unemployment stems from basic, underlying changes in the very nature of the economy. In large part it is explained by the decline of the nation's older smokestack industries - autos, tires, steel. As these older industries shrink in size, face added import competition, or turn to robotics and other new electronic manufacturing processes, fewer workers are needed. Consequently, most of these jobless workers can be found in Northern industrial cities.
One interesting starting point for tackling structural unemployment is a comprehensive plan sketched by Senate Democrats last week. No formal legislation was introduced in the congressional session just ended. A number of bills will likely be readied for consideration next year. What's interesting are those elements in the plan that merit serious attention and would most likely be acceptable to the Reagan White House and the US labor movement.
The overall Democratic proposal involves formulation of a national industrial policy. The degree to which the federal government should be involved in the private sector, is, of course, open to genuine question. Indeed, the trend in recent years - first under the Carter administration with deregulation, and now under the Reagan administration with tax cuts and a slowdown in the rate of growth of federal spending - has been to move away from direct governmental intrusion into the private sector. But some elements of the Democratic plan would surely prove popular. Among them:
* States would be asked to match unemployed workers with specific job openings through intensive and specialized training programs. Such an effort could go far in easing structural unemployment.
* Firms seeking relief from imports would be able to seek relief in a faster manner than now. Specific government and industry programs would be crafted to enable the firms to better meet foreign competition. A number of America's trading partners have such programs.
* Antitrust laws would be relaxed to allow firms to enter into joint agreements for research efforts and to export goods or services.
The more controversial elements of the program will likely trigger resistance. One such proposal is to set up a national ''council on economic competitiveness and cooperation,'' made up of industry, the government, and labor. At the same time, the Democrats would establish a number of state and regional development banks to underwrite private-sector initiatives.
A second Reagan administration would probably balk at federal financing for private-sector programs. At the same time there seems no reason why government, industry, and labor could not work together in some fashion as a clearinghouse for new ideas regarding industrial development and tax policy. Such tripartite cooperation has been common in Japan - and is one of the reasons explaining that nation's vigorous economic growth.
At the least, Senate Democrats have formulated a program that could serve as an imaginative starting point for a more concerted - and nonpartisan - attack on structural unemployment.