It may seem hard to believe in an era of omnipresent social media, mobile apps and the Internet that some of Greater Cincinnati’s biggest employers struggle to find qualified workers for their information technology needs.

One estimate is that about 1,500 to 2,000 IT jobs in the region go unfilled at anytime. These aren’t just entry-level jobs, but positions paying $50,000 and more annually, says Geoff Smith, co-chair of the CIO Roundtable, composed of IT and top executives from the region’s largest companies.

“Technology’s gone from being just a back office function to something that’s strategic to interface with customers,” he says.

At the same time, he says, information technology programs at all area colleges are producing something less than 1,000 graduates annually and not all those grads are entering the job market here.

“If you have a four-digit gap and you’re producing something less than 1,000 new graduates a year, you can’t get there from here,” he says.

It’s not just information technology. Employers in a number of key industries such as advanced manufacturing, construction and health care struggle to find enough qualified workers.

A regional planning study has estimated there will be a minimum of more than 338,000 job openings by 2020, including newly created positions and replacement jobs for those who retire or move away.

Several years ago, the Partners for a Competitive Workforce, a public-private partnership managed by the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, was formed to coordinate efforts to help area employers find skilled workers and develop career paths for those looking for jobs.

Since 2008, it has helped more than 6,100 people obtain job skills in health care, advanced manufacturing and construction and over the last year it has added information technology as an area of focus.

Although they require somewhat different skills, one thing manufacturing, construction and IT share is a negative image, says Janice Urbanik, the Partnership’s executive director.

“Students either think they’re too hard or boring or too nerdy,” she says. “And in construction and manufacturing, in particular, that they are dead-end jobs being shipped off to Asia, which is not true.”

To change those negative perceptions, groups of local employers are becoming more proactive in showing what careers in their industries are like and what the potential careers can be.

In Northern Kentucky, for example, a new effort by employers in the Northern Kentucky Industrial Park Association to get high school students talking to their peers about the advantages of manufacturing careers is being expanded.

The Manufacturing Ambassadors program was launched last fall in Kenton County’s three high schools. Two juniors, each from Scott, Dixie and Simon Kenton high schools, were selected to spend a couple weeks learning about careers at local manufacturers and available training at local colleges. The students then returned to their schools to spread that information among fellow students. In return for their efforts, each of the “ambassadors” received a $500 scholarship to Gateway Community and Technical College, says Rick Jordan, recently retired vice president at LSI Industries Inc. who is serving as informal coordinator. The program, modeled after a similar effort in southeast Indiana, is being expanded to Boone and Grant County high schools.

A survey undertaken by Northern Kentucky manufacturers two years ago found about 700 high-paying manufacturing jobs were annually going unfilled. In large part, Jordan says, it’s because of misperceptions by students, parents and guidance counselors about the skills, pay and careers available in today’s manufacturing.

Urbanik says if you project the Northern Kentucky manufacturer’s survey across the entire region, the number of unfilled jobs approaches 18,000 over the next decade.

She says Cincinnati manufacturers are hoping to introduce the student manufacturing ambassador’s program north of the Ohio River and are developing a new web-based marketing program to draw attention to manufacturing’s career potential.

Smith, a former director of IT at Procter & Gamble Co. who is serving as interim director of the Partners for a Competitive Workforce’s IT pathway effort, says a collaborative composed of the deans and department chairs of IT programs at all area colleges has come together to attack the problem of marketing IT careers on a bigger scale than in the past.

They’re developing a professional marketing campaign using brochures and other media to highlight the local job growth potential of IT careers. One of the first brochures aimed at students entitled “Why I.T.” features pictures and comments from local professionals who chose IT careers, some of the specific career paths and a “who’s who” of local employers.

Even more important than marketing, he says, is a stepped up effort to develop more paid internships at leading local companies for local high school students.

“If you can show a 17-year old that next summer he or she could work for P&G, or Kroger Co. or General Electric, if they go into this field, that’s a pretty strong attraction,” he says.

For several years, the INTERalliance of Greater Cincinnati, a collaborative business effort, has been working to get more high school students interested in technology through efforts such as careers camps and its annual Tech Olympics, which drew more than 500 area high school students to the downtown Millennium Hotel for a weekend in February, with hands-on activities such as mobile app developing and resume and interviewing building skills.

“They’ve become the de facto source of top high school students,” Smith says.

Still, it will be years before today’s high school students are ready for full-time careers. To fill more immediate needs, Smith says, the Partners for a Competitive Workforce has done a couple pilot programs for mid-career people, with good work records, who want to retool their careers. Using workforce-training dollars, they’ve run a couple certificate-training programs on computer application development.

“Out of 22 students in those programs, 20 are now employed and making more than $50,000 a year,” Smith says.

“The big question is how do we scale that program up. We’re looking now at how we do that,” he says.