One of the major legislative items being prepared for Congress when it returns to work this month is a mammoth job training and employment program that would significantly change the U.S. approach to dealing with unemployment.

Under the Clinton administration plan, known as the Workforce Security Act, the nation's current six job retraining programs would be consolidated and expanded into a network of one-stop career centers for displaced workers.The philosophy behind the plan reflects Clinton's belief that much of the unemployment suffered by American workers is not just temporary but a permanent loss of certain kinds of jobs.

Statistics support this view. More and more unemployed people are out of work for six months and beyond. Some jobs that disappeared during the recession and the "downsizing" of major companies are gone for good.

What is needed, according to the Clinton proposal, is not merely unemployment checks until new work can be found but a unified approach, including help in searching for jobs, retraining where necessary and "income support" during the training period.

The price tag is estimated at $3.2 billion a year, with $1.5 billion from the current retraining programs and another $1.7 billion from an increase in discretionary spending and from budget reductions in other programs. Whether that represents realistic thinking remains to be seen.

While much of the proposal has merit - many of the steps have been proposed before - there are drawbacks and loose ends that could send costs spinning out of control. For example:

No one is sure where the so-called federal career centers would be located. The early thinking is that existing job centers would bid against each other every four years for the contract. State employment centers could bid as well. But the possibility of considerable disruption every four years would be daunting. In other cases, the office might be located in a community college or in offices of one of the current retraining programs.

As is the case with all job retraining programs, there is no guarantee that a retrained person will be be able to find work, especially since many of the unemployed are older workers. There are many highly educated and already well-trained people - including technical personnel - who are out of work. The older they are, the harder they are finding it to get new jobs.

In other words, "retraining" is not a sure-fire solution.

Still, the Workforce Security Act deserves a chance - within very strict cost constraints. However, its backers should avoid over-selling the plan and making it sound like the solution to all unemployment problems.

As always, the only real answer to unemployment is not a federal program but a robust national economy that produces new jobs in the private sector.