It's plagued the local workforce for more than a decade.

The deficit between the skills employers need and the skills potential employees have has grown since 2000, business leaders said.

"There are hundreds of open jobs in York County that can't be filled," said Mike Smeltzer, executive director of the Manufacturers' Association of South Central Pennsylvania.

Association members struggle to find local workers who have both electronic and mechanical skills, he said.

"There's less of an interest for people to get their hands dirty, and many potential employees don't know how to diagnose, troubleshoot and fix things. I don't think a day goes by when I don't hear about the skills gap," Smeltzer said. To try to close that skills gap, the York County Economic Alliance is working with the South Central Workforce Investment Board to conduct an analysis of the situation.

Surveys were sent out last week to 1,500 companies in the county, asking what skills are needed to fill their open positions.

"So far the response rate has been strong," said Darrell Auterson, CEO of the YCEA. Businesses have until the end of May to respond.

"We're trying to identify where the challenges and deficiencies are and how to address them," he said.

Follow-up: Once all the responses have been collected, there will be a follow-up analysis and a roundtable event with employers in June, and a final report will be issued in June or July, Auterson said.

"When it's all said and done, we hope to come away with a better process for skills development and produce a local workforce with aptitudes employers need," he said.

It's an effort that will need to include local schools, Smeltzer said.

"There's a disconnect between education and training. It's not that workers here aren't intelligent. People here are very intelligent. It's that they don't know how to apply that intelligence," he said.

The way education is being delivered may need to be more responsive to the manufacturing environment, Auterson said.

"Some educational institutions have already made some changes in engineering curriculum. Now they may need to make sure an engineering student is being properly educated with skills that are applicable in an industrial environment," he said.

The skills gap isn't unique to York County, according to Terri Kaufman, executive director of the South Central Workforce Investment Board.

"It's a problem we see throughout the eight-county region," she said.

The Workforce Investment Board is sending surveys in all those counties, hoping to help facilitate a solution.

In York County, the situation is critical, Auterson said.

"We have the most complex and diverse industrial economy, and we've been hearing about the gap for a long time," he said.

At the YCEA's International Business and Workforce Expo this week, workforce development was highlighted during a summit Wednesday morning. And Wednesday afternoon students visited 135 business exhibitors to learn what skills they need.

"We want to invest in the future of the local workforce. That's at the heart of the expo," Auterson said. "Employers are faced with a dilemma and need to find workers with the right skill sets. We are hopeful we can produce those folks right here."

Smeltzer was also optimistic about the local workforce closing the skills gap.

"It's a problem that's been with us a long time. We're going to solve it. I just don't know how yet," he said.

- Candy Woodall can also be reached at cwoodall@yorkdispatch.com.