President Reagan's brief visit to a jobs forum in Pittsburgh this week will have served a useful purpose if it underscores for all concerned how vital it is that the United States fashion a comprehensive program to deal with the nation's structural unemployment.
Economists differ as to exactly how much of the current 10.3 percent unemployment rate stems not from temporary layoffs but from structural unemployment - workers displaced by the closing of plants in older manufacturing industries such as auto, rubber, or, as in the case of Pittsburgh, steel. Cautious experts feel it may reach as much as 5 percent to 6 percent of total joblessness. That means that until such time as displaced workers are retrained for new work - or channeled into existing jobs in the same community or elsewhere - total federal outlays for welfare and unemployment compensation programs will remain substantial.
The Reagan administration, for all its encouragement of job training and employment programs (such as recent presidential trips to Pittsburgh and Boston) , has been pruning back funding for such programs.
The administration asks $5.4 billion in funding for 1984. That is down from $ 5.8 billion this year.
To its credit, the administration has been successful in prodding Congress into changing the mix of jobs programs. That is, most federal dollars now go directly into educational programs, rather than as subsidies for actual (though often dubious) jobs, as was the case in the old CETA program. Yet, given the magnitude of the unemployment problem within the older manufacturing industries, it can well be asked whether current retraining programs are enough.
Mr. Reagan was on target in his observation at Pittsburgh that retraining by itself did not mean that the older ''smokestack industries'' like steel would ''disappear in America.''
That possibility he said, ''was just not going to happen,'' in part, he seemed to be saying, because circumstances - such as the need for the nation to retain primary industries for security and manufacturing purposes - would not let it happen.
That means that current retraining programs will have to be thought through more carefully. Merely training workers for high technology will not be the whole answer. Witness the decision of Atari to move its high-technology manufacturing abroad. Workers need not only to be trained for manufacturing and technological employment, but also brought into contact with actual jobs. When job trainee Ron Bricker passed his resume along to the President - and said that he had ''been looking for a job for a year'' but hadn't found one - he was speaking for thousands of Pittsburgh area workers who have faced the same challenge.
Surely a nation as resourceful as the United States can find the ways to match its workers to its jobs.