The country is slowly bouncing back from the devasting economic impact of the coronavirus shutdown, but recovery is uneven across several regions and threatens to leave millions behind if localities can’t better equip their workforces for the reviving labor market.

States struggling the most to get their sea legs include Washington, Minnesota, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania, according to a recent June assessment by TOP Data, with New Jersey,  California, Connecticut, New Mexico, and New York among those battling high unemployment rates.

The difficulty many states are experiencing is a trend that was underway before the pandemic struck. In early 2020, the National Skills Coalition reported 52 percent of jobs require training beyond high school, but less than a bachelor’s degree. Yet only 43 percent of workers were receiving relevant training. Similarly, back in 2019, IBM had estimated that approximately 54 percent of all employees would require significant reskilling or upskilling.

Now, during COVID recovery, the mismatch between employer needs and the available labor force is even more front and center and a major obstacle to economic recovery. “Today, many communities lack appropriate education and job-training programs that align with employers’ needs and shifts in the labor market,” said a new report by the organization I lead, the International Economic Development Council (IEDC).

The troubling mismatch is underscored by the latest employment outlook survey by the Manpower Group, which found nearly 70 percent of firms globally are having difficulties hiring skilled workers.

Attracting investment from companies is critical if regions are to fully recover from the devastation wrought by the pandemic shutdown. That will require states and localities to engage with local economic development agencies which in turn can help nurture workforce talent to better match employer needs.

Several regions are exemplars in this effort and highlight a way forward for others to consider.

The Ohio to Work initiative was launched last September as a pilot program in Cleveland – Cuyahoga County. The effort brings together JobsOhio’s network partners, several non-profits, the Urban League of Greater Cleveland, and an array of employers to support workers displaced from jobs during the pandemic. This includes linking workers to jobs through evaluation tools and coaching and providing workers with a mix of accelerated training and financing.

Community Colleges can provide a powerful tool for retraining a local workforce. Last September, Alabama was one of eight states to win a $17.8 million Reimagine Workforce Preparation grant through the coronavirus relief bill. The Alabama Community College System, the Alabama Technology Network, and Alabama Industrial Development Training are delivering training programs over three years to ensure a robust workforce pipeline in the state to better match employer needs.

Apprenticeships also are helping offset the impact of the pandemic, and they are gaining ground as tools to enhance economic opportunity. In just one powerful example, Dallas College in Texas has a goal of creating 50,000 apprentices by 2030 in key sectors like construction, healthcare, IT, manufacturing, and logistics. In 2021, the college began a partnership with Amazon to offer apprenticeships for in-demand jobs such as robotics and mechatronics.

Technology such as improved broadband access is a major focus for some regions during the recovery period because it plays an outsized role in helping workers gain skills and allowing states to attract new residents and businesses. For example, under a new remote worker program unveiled in West Virginia, out-of-state participants who move to the state receive a full relocation package valued at more than $20,000.

More than 9 million Americans are currently unemployed. The lack of marketable skills is a big part of the problem, but no means the only one. Others include a dearth of childcare options and insufficient wages offered by some potential employers, the IEDC report found. All the more reason why it will take economic development acuity at the regional level to win business investment, get people back to work, and better prepared for the careers of the future.