For all the complaints about a flood of imports, Americans last year imported a slightly smaller share of their goods and services than in 1980.

But last year's $326 billion in imported goods and additional billions in services were a more serious threat to American jobs and profits than imports were at the beginning of the decade because of two significant changes:

* The share of U.S. production being exported fell over the same four years from 12.9 percent to 10 percent. That means that the jobs and profits lost to imports were not offset by a rise in jobs making goods and providing services for export.

* In 1980, nearly one-third of imports was crude oil or petroleum products that the United States itself could not produce. Last year, oil was less than 20 percent of U.S. imports. Instead of oil, Americans were buying more foreign-made steel, textiles, apparel, automobiles and business equipment that U.S. companies and workers could have made.

The report the Labor Department issued Friday on March employment underscored this point. While total civilian employment has risen 3 million jobs in the past year, manufacturing -- where the competition from imports is most acute -- is up only 250,000 jobs.

In the face of a reasonably healthy economic expansion, major industries -- including lumber and wood products, primary metals, textile mills, apparel, and leather and leather products -- have lost jobs. The big job gains have come in industries with little or no foreign competition -- restaurants, business services and construction.

Prices of a wide range of goods are being held down by competition from imports. That has helped keep inflation moderate, but it also has hurt corporate profits in a number of industries, particularly steel.

The squeeze in various industries, along with the generally high level of unemployment, also has contributed to holding down wage increases. For instance, between March 1984 and last month, average weekly earnings of production and nonsupervisory workers on industry payrolls rose 2.9 percent -- less than the rate of inflation.

During the first 18 months of recovery and expansion, the gross national product grew so rapidly that -- except in some specific industries -- the widening imbalance between imports and exports did little to retard the economy. Had imports risen more slowly, some economists say, the growth of jobs in the United States would not necessarily have gone up any faster.

But beginning with the third quarter of 1984, imports dragged on the economy and job creation.

GNP, adjusted for inflation, rose at only a 1.6 percent annual rate that quarter and has averaged a 2.7 percent rate since the middle of last year. The unemployment rate, meanwhile, has gone down hardly at all. And employment in primary metals, lumber and wood products, apparel and textiles has dropped. Overall manufacturing employment has not gone up since August, the Labor Department said.

As the overall merchandise trade deficit passed the $100 billion mark last year, the United States had sizable surpluses in only a handful of categories: agricultural products, $19.7 billion; chemicals, $10.1 billion; nonelectrical machinery, $9.3 billion, and coal and certain manufactured commodities, $4.1 billion each.

These surpluses were dwarfed by the deficits in crude oil and natural gas, $39.6 billion; transportation equipment (largely autos), $22 billion; primary metals, $17.1 billion; refined petroleum products, $16.4 billion; electrical machinery and electronics, $15.7 billion, and apparel, $12.9 billion.

The remarkable growth of imports from Japan has obscured the fact that the United States has substantially more trade with Canada than with Japan.

Last year the United States had a $33.7 billion merchandise trade deficit with Japan, as $57.3 billion worth of goods flowed in from Japan and $23.6 billion worth were exported to Slogans Blur Trade Picture Imports Hurt More as U.S. Demand Shifts By John M. Berry Washington Post Staff Writer

For all the complaints about a flood of imports, Americans last year imported a slightly smaller share of their goods and services than in 1980.

But last year's $326 billion in imported goods and additional billions in services were a more serious threat to American jobs and profits than imports were at the beginning of the decade because of two significant changes: The share of U.S. production being exported fell over the same four years from 12.9 percent to 10 percent. That means that the jobs and profits lost to imports were not offset by a rise in jobs making goods and providing services for export. In 1980, nearly one-third of imports was crude oil or petroleum products that the United States itself could not produce. Last year, oil was less than 20 percent of U.S. imports. Instead of oil, Americans were buying more foreign-made steel, textiles, apparel, automobiles and business equipment that U.S. companies and workers could have made.

The report the Labor Department issued Friday on March employment underscored this point. While total civilian employment has risen 3 million jobs in the past year, manufacturing -- where the competition from imports is most acute -- is up only 250,000 jobs.

In the face of a reasonably healthy economic expansion, major industries -- including lumber and wood products, primary metals, textile mills, apparel, and leather and leather products -- have lost jobs. The big job gains have come in industries with little or no foreign competition -- restaurants, business services and construction.

Prices of a wide range of goods are being held down by competition from imports. That has helped keep inflation moderate, but it also has hurt corporate profits in a number of industries, particularly steel.

The squeeze in various industries, along with the generally high level of unemployment, also has contributed to holding down wage increases. For instance, between March 1984 and last month, average weekly earnings of production and nonsupervisory workers on industry payrolls rose 2.9 percent -- less than the rate of inflation.

During the first 18 months of recovery and expansion, the gross national product grew so rapidly that -- except in some specific industries -- the widening imbalance between imports and exports did little to retard the economy. Had imports risen more slowly, some economists say, the growth of jobs in the United States would not necessarily have gone up any faster.

But beginning with the third quarter of 1984, imports dragged on the economy and job creation.

GNP, adjusted for inflation, rose at only a 1.6 percent annual rate that quarter and has averaged a 2.7 percent rate since the middle of last year. The unemployment rate, meanwhile, has gone down hardly at all. And employment in primary metals, lumber and wood products, apparel and textiles has dropped. Overall manufacturing employment has not gone up since August, the Labor Department said.

As the overall merchandise trade deficit passed the $100 billion mark last year, the United States had sizable surpluses in only a handful of categories: agricultural products, $19.7 billion; chemicals, $10.1 billion; nonelectrical machinery, $9.3 billion, and coal and certain manufactured commodities, $4.1 billion each.

These surpluses were dwarfed by the deficits in crude oil and natural gas, $39.6 billion; transportation equipment (largely autos), $22 billion; primary metals, $17.1 billion; refined petroleum products, $16.4 billion; electrical machinery and electronics, $15.7 billion, and apparel, $12.9 billion.

The remarkable growth of imports from Japan has obscured the fact that the United States has substantially more trade with Canada than with Japan.

Last year the United States had a $33.7 billion merchandise trade deficit with Japan, as $57.3 billion worth of goods flowed in from Japan and $23.6 billion worth were exported to Japan. Meanwhile, the United States was shipping almost twice as many goods to Canada -- worth $46.6 billion -- while importing $66.7 billion worth. That left a $20.1 billion deficit in merchandise trade with Canada.

The flow of goods across this country's northern border has left some industries with a dilemma.

For instance, the lumber and wood products industry, particularly in the Northwest, is clamoring for a reduction in tariffs that help keep U.S. lumber out of Japan. At the same time, it is complaining bitterly about Canadian lumber entering the United States, alleging illegal Canadian subsidies that let Canadian companies get trees cheaply from government-owned forests.

Meanwhile, a large flow of foreign capital into the United States has boosted the dollar's value and undoubtedly worsened the trade deficit. However, that same capital inflow -- which is being invested in everthing from Treasury securities to corporate stocks to real estate and U.S. businesses -- also is helping hold down interest rates.

As long as the United States continues to consume and invest more than it produces and saves, as it has for the past three years, it will have a deficit in its transactions with the rest of the world. The large federal budget deficits, of course, are one element in that equation.

The question -- with no firm answer -- is how fast the trade deficit can be reduced. Reducing it will require a decline in the dollar's value, and that will add to inflationary pressures in the U.S. economy.

But the notion that the trade deficit can stay as high as it is or continue to rise presupposes that foreigners will continue to accept promises from U.S. citizens that they will pay in the future for the goods and services they get today.

Until the dollar's value falls far enough to enable American producers to begin to close the trade gap, the excess of imports over exports likely will hobble the economy. Moreover, even if the dollar's recent decline is a harbinger, it will take months or years to undo the currency imbalance's impact on trade, according to most economists.

"Even with a depreciating dollar, the volume of trade, specifically real net exports the difference between imports and exports in the GNP , will not turn around before early 1986," Wharton Econometric Forecasting Associates said in its latest forecast. "This is because markets are still adjusting to the 60 percent appreciation of the dollar over the past four years." Japan. Meanwhile, the United States was shipping almost twice as many goods to Canada -- worth $46.6 billion -- while importing $66.7 billion worth. That left a $20.1 billion deficit in merchandise trade with Canada.

The flow of goods across this country's northern border has left some industries with a dilemma.

For instance, the lumber and wood products industry, particularly in the Northwest, is clamoring for a reduction in tariffs that help keep U.S. lumber out of Japan. At the same time, it is complaining bitterly about Canadian lumber entering the United States, alleging illegal Canadian subsidies that let Canadian companies get trees cheaply from government-owned forests.

Meanwhile, a large flow of foreign capital into the United States has boosted the dollar's value and undoubtedly worsened the trade deficit. However, that same capital inflow -- which is being invested in everthing from Treasury securities to corporate stocks to real estate and U.S. businesses -- also is helping hold down interest rates.

As long as the United States continues to consume and invest more than it produces and saves, as it has for the past three years, it will have a deficit in its transactions with the rest of the world. The large federal budget deficits, of course, are one element in that equation.

The question -- with no firm answer -- is how fast the trade deficit can be reduced. Reducing it will require a decline in the dollar's value, and that will add to inflationary pressures in the U.S. economy.

But the notion that the trade deficit can stay as high as it is or continue to rise presupposes that foreigners will continue to accept promises from U.S. citizens that they will pay in the future for the goods and services they get today.

Until the dollar's value falls far enough to enable American producers to begin to close the trade gap, the excess of imports over exports likely will hobble the economy. Moreover, even if the dollar's recent decline is a harbinger, it will take months or years to undo the currency imbalance's impact on trade, according to most economists.

"Even with a depreciating dollar, the volume of trade, specifically real net exports [the difference between imports and exports in the GNP], will not turn around before early 1986," Wharton Econometric Forecasting Associates said in its latest forecast. "This is because markets are still adjusting to the 60 percent appreciation of the dollar over the past four years."