OFFICIALS IN THE Labor Department appear determined to breath new life into HIRE (Help through Industry Retraining and Employment), the program designed to assist Vietnam-era veterans who lack jobs. The $140-million program, announced with a splurge of publicity in January 1977 by the Carter administration, is now called a dismal failure even by officials within the department. According to their figures, the program has produced jobs for less than 200 veterans; 100,000 jobs was the program's goal. A General Accounting Office report on HIRE is scheduled to be released soon, and presumably the details of failure will be amply reported.

While waiting to learn what went wrong last year, the department still has this year to deal with, and the large numbers of jobless Vietnam veterans who need help. At the moment, a draft of new guidelines for HIRE is being considered by the department. Among other useful provisions, it would ensure that HIRE be a veterans-only program, and not one that includes the long-term unemployed or the unemployed young. Among the latter, it is true, are people who need help, but if the administration intended HIRE as a veterans' program, and Congress agreed, then it should be just that. As Rep. Lester Wolff (D-N.Y.) has pointed out, to include others in HIRE serves "to dilute the program's potential impact on the unemployment problems of our veterans."

A second needed revision involves the number of workers that an employer would be required to hire in order to qualify for federal reimbursement for the cost of training the new workers. When the program began, the number was 100. Almost immediately, that was seen as unrealistic; how often do many companies, even major corporations, hire 100 workers in one sweep? Last November, the requirement was lowered to 15. Now the department thinks that may be too high, and is considering no minimum at all. According to the National Alliance of Businessmen, the group that is participating in the HIRE program, a nominimum provision is likely to be the most workable.

As the Labor Department ponders its course of action, some improvement in the employment figures for veterans has been recorded. How much more improvement might have occurred had HIRE been more carefully conceived and run can only be guessed. It is regrettable, for example, that the department avoided any effective consultation with the business community on the requirement of the 100-worker minimum. It is too bad, also, that funds were not set aside for local veterans' groups that could have been been enlisted in providing support services -- from counseling the unemployed veterans to publicizing the fact that help was available. The new guidelines propose that approximately $14 million be given for this purpose.

Whatever breakdowns and flaws led to HIRE's poor showing to date, at least a salvage operation is under way. The department, after an unfortunate delay, established a bureau that deals only with veterans' unemployment; its director, Roland Mora, a disabled ex-Marine, is new to government, but he is aware that large numbers of jobless vets lack an advocate within the department. Whether Mr. Mora and his staff can fill this role -- or be allowed to fill it --ous that the department needs someone to take the lead. As for the NAB, it deserves a measure of credit for its concerns about the veterans. In addition to being involved with HIRE, it also has its Jobs for Veterans program. The latter, according to recent NAB figures, has found work for some 35,000 veterans.

For HIRE to succeed, the department, first, must adopt new guidelines that would at least correct the mistakes of last year; second, give more authority to its office of veterans' employment; and third, be more open to taking the advice of the business community. In other words, the program needs to be pulled together. The money is already committed and available. Not to use it well would be to add still another burden on the unemployed veterans, a group that already has more burdens than it needs.