Worthy jobs for young people

Given the encouraging news about the drop in unemployment in recent weeks - with the jobless rate down to 9.5 percent in July from 10 percent in June - it would be unfortunate if US political leaders overlooked a worrisome element hidden in the figures: youth unemployment, especially among black teen-agers, remains at historic levels.

Fortunately, Congress is now working on innovative legislation that could help provide legitimate work for a number of young people - and in addition give a boost to the reforestation, land conservation, and public works projects so badly needed in many parts of the United States. The legislation would create a new American Conservation Corps; in effect, a 1980s version of the old Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s. The CCC, which finally ended during World War II, put 4.5 million persons, mainly young people between 17 and 21 years of age, to work planting forests, building roads, clearing trails, and so on. Many CCC projects remain in place to this day.

Should a new CCC program - which would also put young people to work in various conservation-related projects - be looked upon as just another trip into nostalgia? Not at all, given the acute need for conservation work of this kind. Indeed the proposal for a new CCC sailed through the House by a top-heavy 301 -to-87 vote this past March. That vote included over 70 Republicans. A Senate committee, meanwhile, approved a more modest version of the program in May.

The Senate should complete its work on the proposal. In doing so, senators would seem justified in expanding their currently modest proposal to resemble the House-passed measure. The House bill would provide employment and job training for over 100,000 young people annually at a cost of $300 million a year for a period of six years.

Such a youth program, if well administered, need not be considered a political ''boondoggle'' or ''make-work'' project. Take the case of California. The California Conservation Corps, established in 1976, has become a model of effective conservation work by young people.

The Reagan administration has been wary of a new CCC-type program, largely because of cost considerations. It contends that $300 million a year is just too much to spend on jobs that do not prepare young people for the computer-related tasks of the 1980s. In fact this concern should not be totally ignored by lawmakers. Federal legislation could be patterned after the California program, which, among other things, requires young people to attend classes on career development, improve reading and writing abilities, and develop skills in problem-solving.

A new American Conservation Corps makes good sense. Congress should approve such a program as expeditiously as possible.

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