With over 10 million Americans now unemployed, calls are intensifying for a massive new federal public sector ''jobs program.'' In fact, sensing not only broadened public support for such a venture but also political mileage for Democrats in the upcoming November elections, House Speaker Tip O'Neill has scheduled a floor vote Thurdsay on a $1 billion jobs program. It would put 200, 000 persons to work on the maintenance and improvement of public properties.
What must be asked by both lawmakers and the American people is whether such a new jobs effort - at a time when there are some indications that the economy may at last be coming out of recession - is right for the 1980s. Will such a program not only put people to work - while rebuilding the nation's deteriorating infrastructure of bridges, subways and roads - but prove beneficial to society in the long run in terms of lower unemployment and welfare costs?
Surely there can be no quarrel with the proposition that it is better to have a person actually working than unemployed. Nor can it be denied that 9.8 percent unemployment is too high for a compassionate society that values the worth and capacity of each individual. At the same time, it is vital that the current unemployment rate - which has held steady now for two months, suggesting that a turn-around may be coming - be seen for what it is: namely, as much a structural problem as a short-term falloff in employment linked solely to the recession. The important point is that even before the recession began the jobless rate was high - and growing - in many of the primary older industries such as steel and autos.
Thus, whatever solutions are devised will have to address the deeper changes occurring in society as the US shifts from being an industrial manufacturing society to a postindustrial service and high-technology society.
To an extent Congress has already recognized that such a structural change is underway. Legislation enacted by both the Senate and House - and now before a conference committee - would set up a major new jobs training program to replace the CETA program that expires this year. Dollar amounts would be appropriated ''as necessary'' to fund such efforts. Under the training-program approach, the federal government would work in tandem with states and local governments, as well as private employer councils, to identify current and future jobs. The aim: to match training with specific jobs in each area of the US.
The House has also passed legislation that would set up a new conservation corps somewhat similar to the old CCC of the 1930s. Cost: $50 million for fiscal 1982 and $250 million thereafter. The training and CCC-type approaches make good sense in that they are designed for long-term results.
But what, then, of the $1 billion public sector jobs program proposed by House Democrats? The bill is distinct from the longer-range training program. It is deliberately designed to be short-term. When the public sector job ends the worker will once again be on his or her own to find a position and to match existing skills - or lack of skills - with the local labor market.
Although pegged at $1 billion, the Democrats' program could in fact cost much more, since it would make available funds equal to 5 percent of federal outlays for unemployment compensation. If such compensation rose, so too would the job funds. The monies would also be weighted toward Northern industrial states since funds would be allocated to local areas where unemployment rates exceed the national rate. The funds would go to existing administrative units at the local level linked to the US Labor Department.
While such a plan is expected to garner a big vote in the House, action in the Republican Senate is considered far more speculative. Some GOP leaders argue , and not without logic, that such a system would add up to a hodgepodge that would encourage waste at the local level without making a meaningful long-range attack on deficiencies in the public infrastructure. Lawmakers will want to give careful attention to such criticisms. As the history of the 1960s has shown, nothing can be more wasteful than costly crash government programs that leave the long-range problem out of consideration.
Lawmakers now have an opportunity to craft a measured and far-sighted response to the whole jobs question. Training for jobs is essential. A modest CCC-type program for young people seems appropriate. In the area of public service jobs, the best approach would seem to be a long-range program that not only puts Americans back to work but leaves them in a better position to match skills with future jobs when their public service work is wrapped up - and they are once again scanning the morning want ads.