WITH FEWER YOUNG people entering the labor force each year, opportunities for relatively inexperienced workers ought to be easier to find. Specialists, however, still see trouble ahead for those with few skills, and they worry that the education establishment is poorly prepared to do much about it.

Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), speaking at a Brookings conference on educating the future workforce, drew attention to two troubling trends. One is continuing decline in adequate jobs for unskilled workers. While the economy continues to generate millions of jobs in fast-food, retail and other consumer services, these jobs typically pay much less -- far too little to support a family -- than the low-skilled manufacturing jobs they replace. At the same time, the large number of immigrants and minority youths still entering the labor force each year adds to the demand for unskilled jobs.

The resulting job gap means high unemployment and poverty rates for many people and their families -- a problem that is not going to solve itself. This country, the senator observed, is not going to let these people starve. Would it rather pay them to work or to do nothing? And if, as seems likely, most people prefer the work choice, how can society prepare the unskilled for the better jobs that the economy produces?

One way, suggested economist Alice Rivlin, is to restructure education to make it more adaptable to changing skill and work patterns. Abandon the current emphasis on a general education leading to a final degree. Instead, break each kind of learning -- reading, writing amd computing as well as acquisition of more specific knowledge and skills -- into small bites. People could move in and out of the education system as their job needs progress, earning certificates of competency at each step.

Many, perhaps most, students will still prefer the traditional school for the continuity and companionship it provides. But there are already numerous examples of successful alternatives -- including the vast modular training establishment run by the military -- scattered throughout the country. The problem is that jurisdictions have been slow to learn from each other and the education establishment has often resisted change.

States and localities are not likely to be in either a position or a mood to invest in expensive new kinds of education. Further cuts in federal aid are almost a certainty. If the administration's income tax overhaul removes the deduction for state and local taxes, the resulting downward pressure on these taxes will further reduce educational resources. If states want to avoid adding to their numbers of hard-to-employ workers, their school systems will have to learn better how to borrow good ideas from each other and how to get the most from the resources they have.