CHIEF JUSTICE Warren E. Burger's recent remarks on the wisdom of the helping prison inmates get the skills they need to earn a living prompt another thought. Shouldn't people be at least as concerned about giving this kind of help to young people before they end in the cell block?

It is a sad fact of modern America that millions of youth leave school without even the rudiments of a basic education, let alone the ability to find and hold a decent job. Many, but not all, come from low-income families, minority groups and the sums of cities. Whether the blame should be placed on their parents or their schools, or both, can be argued, but the fact of their existence cannot.

The Carter administration tried to deal with their condition by launching special programs to encourage such young people to stay in school as long as possible and to develop the capacities and qualifications wanted by employers. Most of the programs have been operating for only about two years, but some that have been carefully reviewed have been found to be quite successful. Particularly notable were projects that encouraged youths to remain in or return to school by the promise of a part-time job.

The Reagan administration currently plans to end both the authority and the $875 million budget for the special youth job and training programs this year and simply add a small amount of money to what little is left of CETA to compensate for this loss. The remnants of CETA will be primarily training programs, most of them provided by community colleges and other parts of the vocational education system. These have a relatively undistinguished record. A recent Labor Department evaluation revealed that this training added no more to participants' subsequent earnings -- and for some groups, far less -- than did short-term public service employment, despite the fact that the purpose of the latter activity was primarily to provide income and community services -- as distinct from skills -- for participants.

The Labor Department hopes to improve on this record by stressing n-the-job training provided by employers. This has long been known to be the most successful approach, but previous attempts to expand it have met with understandable employer resistance, especially to taking on young people who are woefully deficient in the 3 R's and have no work record.

The administration is already under considerable pressure from Congress' Labor committees to come up with some replacement for the youth job and training programs that are now due to expire June 5. It's hard to imagine what can be accomplished within the dollar limits now proposed. In considering its choices, Congress should remember, however, that it's a lot more desirable -- and a lot less expensive -- to help young people get schooling and get on the right track while they're still "on the outside."