With unemployment remaining stubbornly high, workforce-development officials across the region are working overtime to align the skills of workers with the needs of employers.

It's called the skills gap; employers report that they can't get enough workers with the proper training to fill the jobs of the 21st century. It's a disconnect that's frustrating not just for the employers, but also for the 11.8 million out-of-work Americans.

"The local trend reflects the national trend; our regional employers are clearly having the same issue as employers across the country. They have open positions that they are having great difficulty filling," says Janice Urbanik, interim executive director of the local Partners for a Competitive Workforce, a private-public partnership that's run by United Way of Greater Cincinnati. "And when you overlay that with the unemployment rate, that just doesn't seem to make sense."

The unemployment rate in Ohio was 7 percent in May, below the national average of 7.6 percent, while Kentucky's jobless rate was higher, at 8.1 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the 15-county Greater Cincinnati region, the jobless rate was 6.8 percent.

The new manufacturing economy has been hit hard by the skills gap. Today's factory is much different from that of yesteryear.

"If you walk into any advanced-manufacturing center now, no matter what they're making, odds are you could literally eat off the floors," Brian '™Keeffe, operations manager of the Workforce Development Center at Cincinnati State Technical & Community College, says. "These aren't dirty, grimy plants anymore. They're highly automated, highly specialized. It takes a different skill set."

Urbanik agrees: "It's a much higher level of skill. It is not an assembly line where you just push a button all day. That job doesn't exist anymore. You need computer skills, you need the ability to think about complex supply systems."

Employees "need critical-thinking skills, they need higher math skills, they need problem-solving skills, they need teamwork skills, they need the ability to think in three dimensions," Urbanik adds.

Local educational institutions, particularly community and technical colleges, have been readjusting their programming since the Great Recession took hold in 2008. With technology moving so fast, the schools are finding that they must move quickly, to'”or the skills they teach today will be obsolete tomorrow.

Gateway Community & Technical College in Northern Kentucky offers six manufacturing majors. Angie Taylor, vice president for Workforce Solutions at Gateway, says apprenticeship is having a big resurgence.

"We have eight to ten companies that are hiring these folks and putting them in really great entry-level positions, and they're paying full tuition for them to come to Gateway," Taylor says. "They're earning a living, they're learning on the floor, and they're coming to Gateway to pick up one of our six manufacturing majors. These students will come out debt-free."

Taylor says companies work closely with the school to establish the proper curriculum for the skills that they need.

"We can be assured that our curriculum covers what they need to create success on that manufacturing floor," she says. "I do believe that there is more emphasis on education for technical careers due to the technical needs of positions that we didn't have before. We have students studying trig to run manufacturing machines."

Gateway not only is helping adults, but it has a couple of programs geared for kids. This summer, it hosted a manufacturing camp for eighth-graders who spent a week building robots.

"It makes them see manufacturing in a different light," Taylor says of the youngsters. "The chair you're sitting in, the toothbrush you used this morning, they don't think about who made that."

Gateway also provides STEM days each Friday. That's shorthand for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, a key term in today's economy. High school sophomores, juniors and seniors spend half of the day at Gateway and the other half at a local employer, learning how what they learned in the classroom applies at the company.

"It's all about opening up the mind and saying, 'Did you ever think about doing this?'" Taylor says.

Dislocated, older workers are a particular challenge for all of the workforce-development experts.

Cathy Sahlfeld, business services manager of Workforce One of Clermont County, one of Ohi'™s job-assistance centers, notes that "a lot of people who have been displaced are thinking of retooling their skills and going after technical degrees or short-term educations that will land them a self-supporting job at the end."

She says there's huge demand for CDL (commercial driver's license) truck drivers, welders, pharmacy techs, radiologists, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) techs and a lot of two-year-or-less health-care degrees and certifications.

"Those are the in-demand professions, popular for people "¦ who know they will land a job in the end," she says.

'™Keeffe says Cincinnati State has a six-week pharmacy technician program. "We had literally a 100 percent employment rate coming out of that class in the last fiscal year because of the demand from retail pharmacies. That ties into the long-term trend of the aging population."

'™Keeffe also says the Workforce Development Center is helping the displaced in a couple of ways. It is providing skills training to get the older workers up to date, but it also is advising them on some of the basics of job search"”many of these employees haven't had to interview for decades.

"They come out of a job they've been in for 25 years," '™Keeffe says. "They don't know how to write a resume. They don't know how to communicate. They were experts at their job, experts at a job that doesn't exist anymore. They can't afford to stay unemployed for long. We're trying to maximize their return and get them into the workforce sooner. We try to accelerate many programs as much as possible to get them the training necessary to get them to that first step. The longer programs are for getting them to the next step up."

He says retraining can be difficult for some. They didn't have a lot of exposure to new technology, "even basic keyboard entry, and there's some developmental training that a lot of these folks need, and it's fairly daunting. It becomes a barrier for many job seekers. They're not hopeless; they just need to tackle those barriers more aggressively."

While some older workers struggle with the new economy, younger workers appear to have a different issue. They need to learn the so-called soft skills"”being able to communicate, work in teams, think critically, be self-starters, etc.

"We're hearing from the employers (that) in younger workers, they love that they are digital natives, and they love that they can immediately come in and access communication technology," '™Keeffe says. "However, they don't necessarily have social or professional-communications skills. "¦ The digital natives, and the Millennials in particular, are fast thinking, free thinking. (Employers) are seeing business memos written as if they're text messages that really lack depth and the analysis or the professionalism. Folks come in for interviews and won't look people in the eye because they're used to texting."

Sahlfeld also hears the same thing from employers. She says a strong work ethic, dependability and punctuality are all characteristics that employers say they need in younger workers.

Sahlfeld says LEAD Clermont, a leadership-development program of the Clermont Chamber of Commerce, surveyed employers in 2012 to determine their needs. "Some of the questions were about math skills, science skills, technical skills. By far, the biggest (concerns) were ethics and dependability and similar characteristics."

Urbanik says many of these soft skills need to be developed in the formal K-12 system "by developing problem-based learning or project-based learning, which many of our local school districts are moving to." She says students work on a real-life project in a team-based environment, and that "provides critical career relevancy. They understand the question of 'Why do I have to learn this?' It requires them to develop critical-thinking skills."

Although the Great Recession was painful, it did lead to a sense of urgency in the retooling of America's economy. Manufacturers have begun reshoring some of the jobs that they exported overseas.

"Rising wage rates in other countries and/or shipping costs and tariffs are just making it not the economic windfall it used to be," Urbanik says.

It also has led states to create better resources to match job seekers and employers, especially on the Internet.

Ohiomeansjobs.com, for instance, contains a wealth of career resources. Among them is the Buckeye Top Fifty, a list of high-wage occupations in demand, including numerous jobs in health care, construction and information technology. Average annual earnings in the Top Fifty top $59,600, and the list includes projected openings in each field through 2018.

Job seekers can post resumes just as employers can post their openings. And if both sides do their part to improve the training of the workforce of the 21st century, that could be the beginning of the end of the skills gap.