Ever since federal aid for job and training programs began two decades ago, state and local governments that run the programs have been so busy adjusting to wildly fluctuating rules and budgets that they have had little time to improve services. Recently, the National Alliance of Business looked in on local programs and reported that, once again, job-training programs are getting back on their feet after the latest upheaval.

During the first years of the Reagan administration the job-training system lost billions of dollars for public service jobs, special programs for low-income youths and other groups, and the remaining training programs were overhauled substantially. Now, according to the NAB survey, the system is beginning to settle down again, and, given its new limit, it seems to be performing reasonably well.

Probably the most important trend is increasing private-sector involvement. Private Industry Councils set up in the Carter years have been given more control over training programs. In many areas, private businessmen have taken an active interest, and on-the-job-training programs -- usually the most effective kind -- have been expanded. Most areas have also been able to meet or even exceed federal targets for placing clients in jobs paying between $4 and $5 an hour. Some areas have also been able to tap other money or programs to make up for lost money for needed services, such as day care. The downside is that, given tight cost limits and high placement goals, the programs can't do much for people who need more than a little labor market help. Most clients receive only help in finding jobs. What training is provided is usually even briefer than it was under earlier CETA training programs, which were often criticized as superficial. So far, it isn't known whether the two-thirds of participants reported to be placed in jobs held them for any length of time or whether most of them would have done as well without any help. And some areas complain that the new federal structure, which gives more control to states and less to localities, has added a new layer of administrative costs while tending to divert funds away from urban areas that need the most help.

Clearly these programs are no substitute for other efforts, such as the Job Corps, which provide in-depth help for people with serious impediments to holding a job. But apparently they are serving a useful function. With a few more years of stable operation, most areas should be able to reach out to more disadvantaged clients and make their programs more effective. What is needed is assurance of reasonably stable funding along with recognition by politicians that an occasional failure -- or even scandal -- in local programs should not be seized upon as an excuse for upending the entire system.