Given a United States unemployment rate that reached a high 9.4 percent in April, calls now are increasing for a major new federal jobs program. The most promising proposal so far is a rather remarkable compromise put together by Indiana Republican Dan Quayle and Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy. The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee has the opportunity later this week to throw its weight behind this solid piece of bipartisan legislation. It would create a new jobs training program which would retain many of the better features of the expiring CETA program while leaving much of the decisionmaking process at the local level, where training can be geared to long-range employment needs. It warrants speedy enactment.
By contrast, an ''employment initiative,'' announced by House Democrats recently, would commit $2 billion in federal funds to putting unemployed persons to work in housing and public service jobs -- a variation, of sorts, of the public-service jobs program under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), which officially expires Sept. 30. The White House has called CETA (which combined job training and public service employment) ''a failure'' and vowed to resist any costly new ''makework'' employment programs. However, it is willing to support a new jobs program, provided it is a genuine educational program and not, in effect, an income-maintenance program disguised as a jobs training effort.
There is a strong case to be made for a new training program, even if the United States were not in recession. Many workers -- particularly among minorities and the young -- are ill-equipped to deal with America's high-technology, computer-oriented enterprises. That is also true for experienced workers in older, declining industries, such as autos and steel.
But what is needed is long-range job training rather than just short-term works programs. Thus the preferability of the Quayle-Kennedy bill:
* It provides for a ''new partnership'' between the federal, state and local governments, and private industry. The goal: to train workers for long-term jobs.
* It would train workers displaced by current plant closings.
* Funds for the program, which would be determined later this year by Congress, would be provided in grants to the states.
* The bill would not continue CETA's public service employment.
The committee is expected to attach a new summer youth program to the bill (for 1983). That program would also be geared to education, rather than just short-term summer jobs. Whether such a modest program (probably less than $600 million) would be adequate, however, is a question, especially now that unemployment among teen-agers has risen to 23 percent. Indeed the youth program for this summer -- around $685 million -- is already down from $799 million last year.
Still, the Quayle-Kennedy approach seems a step in the right direction. One point of contention to be thrashed out in the committee will be whether trainees should be given wages. Since training programs may last up to 40 weeks or so and involve actual on-the-job work, some remuneration seems reasonable. But the stress of the plan should be on education that actually prepares participants for the jobs of the future.