One of the ironies of the economic recovery is that, despite an unemployment rate of 8.2 percent, U.S. manufacturers are struggling to find workers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. manufacturers posted 310,000 job vacancies in May. That’s three times the figure from May 2009. And yet manufacturers nationwide are finding they can’t get good help. In Indiana, for example, 5 percent to 10 percent of manufacturing jobs go unfilled because applicants lack the necessary skills.

What’s alarming about that figure is that it could very well get worse. The age gap between our industrial and nonindustrial workforces is widening. The manufacturing sector is being disproportionately affected by the aging of the American workforce. Today, the median age in manufacturing is 44.1 years vs. 42.1 years for the total non-farm workforce, and the gap continues to spread.

Manufacturing desperately needs young blood. Fortunately, a growing number of U.S. manufacturers are reviving a tried-and-true concept: the apprenticeship.

One of them is General Electric. In February, GE launched a two-year apprenticeship program at its River Works jet engine factory in Lynn, MA. GE worked with a local community college to develop the program, and the company has already enrolled 19 people. Twelve are training as machinists, and seven are training in machine repair.

Participants will be eligible for tuition reimbursement from GE after six months of employment, and those who successfully complete year one will earn a certificate in manufacturing technology. Graduates of the second year will earn an associate’s degree in manufacturing technology.

Nine-hundred miles south, in Stanley, NC, Blum Inc. has been successfully running an apprenticeship program since 1995. A manufacturer of cabinet hardware, Blum created the Apprenticeship 2000 program with four other local manufacturers.

The program recruits students from 36 area high schools. The four-year program pays apprentices to attend classes at a local community college. Apprentices also receive training at the sponsoring companies’ facilities. Apprentices can train as tool and die makers, electronics technicians, CNC machinists, machine technicians, molding technicians and welders.

Upon completion of the program, the students earn a journeyman’s certificate and an associate’s degree. More importantly, they are guaranteed jobs paying at least $34,000 per year plus benefits.

The program isn’t cheap. Blum and its partners spend some $100,000 per student, and there are no strings attached. Students are free to hire on with other companies, but the overwhelming majority stay with their respective employers for years. Blum sees the program as an investment in its future—every bit as important as R&D.

We applaud GE, Blum and other forward-thinking companies for investing in America’s manufacturing future, and we encourage other companies to follow their example. The next generation of skilled workers is in your hands.