HOW ABOUT MERGING the departments of

Education and Labor? Both these agencies are orphan children of the Reagan administration. The Department of Labor has been shorn of most of its labor-force development activities and interests. The Department of Education, as a separate entity, is headed for extinction. A merger of the essential (as distinct from other) functions of the two would do more than provide shelter and comfort for two outcasts. It would recognize the always present-- but increasingly urgent--need to make sure that schools are providing their graduates with the education and skills needed in a rapidly changing economy.

The federal government's role in both education and employment is a comparatively modest one. Education is--and should remain--primarily the concern of local governments. Employment, in a free enterprise system, is primarily the task of the private sector. But, as Dan Morgan showed in his recent series in this newspaper on youth in the 1980s, there is much evidence that the relationship between schools and jobs isn't working nearly as well as it should.

Ever increasing numbers of high school and college students have part-time jobs. These jobs, however, are more likely to be distractions from school work than positive aids to learning. On the other hand, a large and growing number of students leave high school--and even college--with little hope of finding steady jobs, much less of qualifying for the increasingly technical jobs that the economy is producing.

Historically neither the Education Department (and its predecessor agencies) nor the Labor Department has cared much about whether kids found good jobs when they left school or whether the economy's needed skills were being provided. The education agency concerned itself mainly with the care and feeding of its major clientele--the teachers' unions--and the Labor Department devoted its large energies to the rest of unionized labor. Neither agency paid much attention to private employers.

Over the last several years, however, both have widened their horizons. The Labor Department was forced by its expanded responsibilites for jobs and training to begin looking at the many factors--including education--that keep large numbers of workers out of good jobs. The education agency was forced by widespread evidence of declining academic achievement to question whether the practices it had fostered were really meeting the needs of large numbers of students. Finally, during the last years of the Carter administration, the two actually got together--and invited private industry in --to plan ways to pursue their common interests in the nation's youth.

We are not suggesting that American education should discard its long and fundamental commitment to fostering education as a value in its own right apart from its vocational benefits. And clearly the interests of the Labor Department extend far beyond the development of young workers. But there is--or should be--a strong link between a nation's educational practices and its employment policies. This is already recognized by Congress in the assignment of both subjects to the same committee. A comparable assignment in the executive branch might make sense.