IS VOCATIONAL EDUCATION effective as it is funded and conducted in this country? This promises to be one of the major education issues faced in 1981 by the next Congress, which must reauthorize (i.e., extend or amend) the national vocational education act if federal funding is to continue.

During fiscal 1981 the federal government will spend $776.8 million on state grants earmarked for skills-training in secondary and post-secondary schools. Do these programs help young people find jobs? Do they meet the demonstrated needs of American business and industry?

These are the questions which have been and will continue to be addressed in congressional hearings over the next 12 months. Already, during testimony in September before the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary and Vocational Education, witnesses have given widely diverging views on the effectiveness of vocational education programs. More hearings are scheduled for next month .

For its Winter Education Review , Book World asked two men familiar with the controversy to present their differing points of view. Here are their comments :

More than 17 million Americans were enrolled in vocational education programs offered by public institutions in 1979. Enrollments have increased by 5 million, or 44 percent, since 1972 -- making it the fastest growing area of education today.

Vocational education is based on the concept that the educational system should help people prepare for employment. It's a concept that can and does work.

Yet, despite the clarity of this goal, it is probably the least understood area of education because preparing people for work is a complex and constantly changing process. No other area of education is asked to change so much and so rapidly.

At its best, vocational education reprsents a cooperative federal, state and local effort to meet the nation's acute need for skilled workers. Federal funding has been established for vocational education because lawmakers recognize that it can play a crucial role in raising individual productivity and in helping both rural and urban communities attract and hold businesses and industries which depend upon workers with technical know-how and work-oriented values.

Within the next two years Congress will be looking once more at vocational education legislation and charting new directions for the 1980s. Vocational educators believe that new legislation must focus on two things.

First, it must maintain excellence in vocational education programs. This will require new equipment, new approaches to teaching and continual staff development to keep programs in tune with the needs of business and industry. Secondly, it must help meet the most critical employment needs facing our country. Vocational training should be provided for economically depressed communities, and specific programs should be developed to help meet the critical shortages of skilled workers expected in the coming decade.

To be effective, vocational education must work closely with business, industry and labor. Recently the American Vocational Association invited a group of employers for a day-long discussion of the problems they are facing. In our discussion, over and over these employers stressed the need for skilled workers.

Can vocational education meet this need? Vocational educators believe it can, given the proper public support.

To judge vocational education's effectiveness, we must understand exactly what is meant by the term. Most young people get their introduction to vocational education through participation in career guidance and career exploration activities in the early high school years. They then may move into specific job training programs where they acquire the knowledge and skills needed to enter a number of jobs within a given occupation area. Vocational education offers training in more than 400 occupations -- at varying skill levels. Almost all programs combine classroom instruction with some form of on-the-job training.

When the White House Task Force conducted its study leading to the Youth Act of 1980, it found that employers all over the country said that they preferred to hire graduates of vocational schools. Employers say they particularly like vocational education's emphasis on a positive attitude to work on the foundation skills for an occupational area rather than specific training for a single job. Vocational education stresses what are called "employability skills," which encompass good attitudes and pride in work. Studies show that more people lose their jobs because they can't get along with the boss or with co-workers than because of incompetence. Vocational education emphasizes this important dimension of being a good worker.

Vocational education seems to have a positive effect on a student's employment prospects, according to a recent interim report by the National Institute of Education, which is conducting a congressionally mandated national study of vocational education. The study noted: "The vocational education high school graduate is less likely to be unemployed, especially if the student is black, and is more likely to be in a semi-skilled or skilled job than is the general curriculum graduate . . . . employers are likely to be satisfied with the student's attitudes toward work and preparation in the job-related skills."

Vocational education is frequently thought of as a secondary school program only. However, in the last two decades, there has been an increasing emphasis on postsecondary vocational training as a means of providing the highly skilled workers that industry wants.

Government statistics show that at least 80 percent of the jobs in the 1980s will require less than a baccalaureate degree. All but five of the 25 careers cited in a recent Department of Labor list of careers where job growth is expected to be largest by 1985 required vocational education preparation. It is not surprising, therefore, that many students are turning to vocational education institutions to get the training they need to equip them for available jobs.

However, vocational education is not only for people who are just entering the work force. It also retrains workers displaced by industry shutdowns and upgrades workers' skills to keep pace with changing technology. Department of Labor figures tell us that most adults will change careers at least four or five times in their lives. These changes will generally necessitate some type of vocational retraining.

Within the last two decades, vocational education has put increasing emphasis on preparing people for particular jobs with particular employers. In many communities, the availability of on the spot training for a new or expandng industry has been a key factor in attracting and holding jobs. At least half of all the states now have industrial training programs carried out through their state departments of vocational education. Governors and other officials describe the impact of these programs on their state economies in glowing terms.

In communities with strong vocational programs, citizens and government leaders recognize vocational education not as "second-class education" but as quality education that provides students with a choice. The quality of vocational education programs, however, is dependent upon the support they receive at the local, state and national levels. When key leaders -- labor, management and educational -- recognze its worth and assume the responsibility for keeping programs in tune with needs of the business and industrial communities, it succeeds. Without such support, vocational education will not work.