As the 2016 presidential race heats up, Americans will be looking to the candidates for their ideas on bolstering the U.S. economy. The ideas can’t come soon enough: 7.9 million people  remain unemployed in the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet, so many of them could be gainfully employed today -- and on track to the middle class -- if they had the workforce-ready skills needed by employers.

In the manufacturing sector, nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will likely need to be filled over the next decade. However, because of the skills gap, two million of those jobs are going unfilled, according to the Manufacturing Institute’s 2015 Skills Gap Report. The report points to two major contributing factors: Baby Boomers retiring and taking their skills with them, and advancements in the manufacturing sector that many existing workers aren’t qualified to meet.

While there’s no magic bullet for solving the skills gap, on-the-job training can be highly effective at recruiting, training and retaining skilled workers. It’s a step in the right direction if industry can help raise awareness about the value of apprenticeships and work-based learning -- two effective pathways that savvy employers use to train workers for actual jobs they need filled. Apprenticeships have been used effectively in the trades for decades, but are less prevalent in manufacturing or other economic sectors. However, a recent report by Deloitte says that 72% of Americans indicate apprenticeships and work-based learning would increase their interest in manufacturing. Not surprising, since a misperception about today’s advanced manufacturing still lingers (dirty, heavy, manual, not innovative).

Without employer input and involvement in training – whether it’s with a local training facility, community college, or in-house – the risk of further skill mismatch is great. Unfortunately, though, work-based learning has not been a priority in the U.S.: in fact, programs that combine on-the-job learning with mentorships and classroom education fell 40% between 2003 and 2013. This is a troubling trend, especially since these programs offer robust training and career experiences.

Still, many U.S. businesses, academia and government are very committed to investing in work-based learning and creating opportunities for workers. To illuminate their best practices, the White House announced the first-ever Apprenticeship Week this year (November 2-6). The effort rallies organizations across the nation to host local events that educate the public about work-based learning and advances apprenticeship as a manufacturing workforce strategy.  Furthermore, through the White House Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP) 2.0, businesses are accelerating U.S. advanced manufacturing technologies and upgrading community college workforce training programs – both of which yield high quality jobs.

As part of the AMP 2.0, three companies--Alcoa, The Dow Chemical Company and Siemens USA--formed a coalition to build apprenticeship models and created an instructional playbook for other U.S.-based companies seeking to develop similar programs. The Employer’s Playbook for Building an Apprenticeship Program, launched last year by The Manufacturing Institute, is free and available online.

The Playbook’s nine chapters provide a step-by-step process for employers -- from workforce planning and building the business case for an Apprenticeship program, to establishing public-private partnerships, and marketing the program. It also offers a “how-to guide” for selecting Apprenticeship program participants, monitoring the program’s performance, and transitioning apprentices to longer-term employment. In addition, it provides guidance on how employers and their external partners can maintain the relevance of the Apprenticeship program and ensure its long-term success.

To narrow the skills gap in manufacturing and bolster the economy, let’s raise awareness among businesses, workers and communities about a successful model that combines study and learning with  working: the apprenticeship. Through action from the White House, bipartisan legislative proposals  and private-sector initiatives, we can invest in a robust supply of workers with much needed manufacturing skills -– engineering, skilled trades, and production –- and prepare Americans for lucrative and rewarding careers.