The United States, Canada and Mexico will pass a major milestone Thursday when their respective leaders sign the new North American Free Trade Agreement.

It will be a significant step for Utah, too, because of the economic benefits this state stands to gain from this effort to make North America more competitive with the European Common Market.Just how significant a step can be seen from the fact that Canada and Mexico already are Utah's second and twelfth largest export markets respectively, providing this state with $342 million in sales and generating 6,000 jobs in Utah. What's more, these export-related jobs are among the highest paying in Utah.

Added encouragement is provided by this week's report from the U.S. Council of the Mexico-U.S. Business Committee on the expected impact of the new trade agreement on Utah.

The council estimates that over 10 years the new pact will stimulate $17 million in new business for Utah exporters, expanding employment in Utah by more than 330 new jobs. After that period, Utah is expected to gain 680 more jobs than it would have without the trade agreement.

We cite these figures because President-elect Clinton has been lukewarm in endorsing the agreement and has been talking about steps that could delay implementation of the pact or water it down in the name of job training.

That would be folly. Yes, the pact is expected to result in the loss of some American jobs. But nearly two dozen different studies agree that the overall impact of the agreement will be to produce a net gain of new jobs in both the United States and Mexico. For the United States as a whole, the figure comes to 175,000 new jobs over the next decade.

Like any international agreement based on compromise, the new North American Free Trade Agreement has its flaws. The challenge now is to try to work out those flaws as the agreement is put to use rather than insisting on perfection before the United States, Canada and Mexico start doing more business with each other.