Middle market companies face a skills gap, particularly among younger workers who need to come up to speed with the specific needs of a business or industry. That's why internships, mentorships, in-house training, and other programs can help drive productivity and provide significant return.

Until recently, Lawrence Toney, now the CEO of software developer training company LearnStreet, managed 100 people - 40 of whom were programmers - at gaming company Zynga. And he had a problem. "The developers coming out of undergrad school were extremely talented in understanding the theory of coding," he told NCMM, "but it was important for them to have some skills that were particular to the technology stack in use at Zynga."

To put it a little differently, they had all learned the theory of being high-level software architects but not the skills of focusing on a feature or performing maintenance on a giant body of code that others had written. In addition, they never had experience in the technologies that Zynga had put together. What the company needed was an internship equivalent for full-time employees.

So Toney had some of the best programmers teach the new ones in classes. New employees would work on a team with five to six more senior developers, who would help bring them up to speed. Toney's new venture actually puts together such training for companies.

Zynga learned what many other middle market companies face. Next generation workers often exhibit a skills gap. No matter the type of job, there are many basic things they don't know - and might not be able to learn in school. The economic impact can be severe.

According to the NCMM, three in four manufacturers are trying to hire, and more than half of those who have implemented advanced manufacturing have unfilled positions. On average, manufacturers indicate science, math and technology represent the greatest deficiencies.

Even in 2012, while unemployment stubbornly persisted, companies saw significant vacancies in so-called middle-skill jobs, according to business experts at MIT and Rutgers. Such positions - in nursing, computer technology, advanced manufacturing, and electrical - require some significant training. People in these positions represent close to half of all workers.

Gaps will only increase as baby boomers retire and 47 percent of job openings until 2020 are middle-skills ones. Another consideration is understanding the dynamics of a particular industry. A salesperson in a B2B company like a tool and die manufacturer may employ the same selling principles as someone on an auto dealer's floor, but the specifics of understanding the customer and the necessary sales process differ. Also important is the impact that technology has on all industries. Workers need to keep pace. Yet there may be no formal educational mechanism to help them do so.

As research sponsored by NCMM shows, there is a correlation between training and higher company growth. But sending people to formal classes can be expensive, and only 6 percent of middle market companies are willing to invest additional money in such training and development programs.

That is why, to close the skills gap, companies need to create more innovative training approaches, such as the following:

  • Internships. Long a staple of larger companies, embracing students in critical STEM areas lets a company bring people up to speed - and identify those who would be good future employees. For example, Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business Career Management Office held its annual internship and career fair, with middle market companies eligible for a discount to participate. In 2012, 30 middle market companies attended and made a total 17 full-time position offers and filled three internships.
  • Mentorships. For younger workers already out of school, do as Zynga did and pair them with an experienced person in their field. It's a great way to get them to understand the particular processes and idiosyncrasies of your business.
  • In-house classes. Identify skill or knowledge areas where younger workers are lacking and have senior staff offer seminars and training classes. The cost is far less than contracting to a firm, and no one from the outside will know the business like the most trustworthy and dependable employees. Professional services firm NeoSystems Corp. invests in an in-house training program, covering "everything from the latest changes to rules and regulations to how to use specific software packages," according to CEO Michael Tinsley.
  • Boot camps. Although more expensive than already sunk salary costs, there are firms like Toney's that specialize in teaching specific skills, offering crash courses in specific types of software development, negotiation, data science, GIS, or accounting. Maybe an intensive exposure aided by mentoring could give an existing employee a path into another role for the company. Plus, the cost could be less than that of hiring someone new.
  • Study grants. It can make sense to pay for a younger person's training in exchange for a promise to work for the company for a specific period of time. Planned correctly, the company more than gets its investment back and increases the possibility of hiring people for the long run.

Skills gaps can have a painful impact on middle market companies. But there's no reason to suffer passively. Take action today to build your workforce for tomorrow.

Erik Sherman is an NCMM contributor and author whose work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal The New York Times Magazine Newsweek, the Financial Times Chief Executive, Inc., and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch. Sherman has extensive experience in corporate communications consulting and is the author or co-author of 10 books. Follow him on Twitter.