Manufacturers are determined to close the “skills gap” they say exists between the job openings they have and the job seekers who are not qualified for them.

With an aging manufacturing workforce, the drive to close the gap has taken on greater urgency.

Enter a program called “Dream It, Do It,” coming soon to some Buffalo Niagara area high schools. It’s designed to expose young people to careers in advanced manufacturing, knock down stereotypes about those jobs, and, ideally, attract employees of the future.

“It’s all about letting the public know that manufacturing is alive and well and is leading the U.S. out of the recession,” said Nadine M. Powell, manager of business advocacy for the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, who is helping launch “Dream It, Do It” locally.

The region’s manufacturing job count has plummeted in the past few decades. But Powell said a number of area manufacturers struggling to find candidates with the necessary skills are eager to do something about it.

“Dream It, Do It” was started by the Manufacturing Institute, an affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers and is now in more than 20 states. Its objectives resonate here: in a survey of local manufacturers, 62 percent reported a “moderate to severe” shortage of qualified talent.

“They grow even more concerned when you ask them to look five years out, when you consider the average age of their employees,” Powell said.

Backers of “Dream It, Do It” say they want to challenge outdated perceptions about manufacturing – for instance, that the workplaces are dirty or unsafe, or that jobs in the sector have dried up. “Unfortunately, manufacturing has had a narrative attached to it for the past 30 years,” Powell said.

The open jobs include welders, mechanics, machine operators, floor supervisors, engineering positions and Computer Numerically Controlled, or CNC, machinists. Many of these jobs have a high-tech dimension, a far cry from the factory assembly lines from decades ago.

The Western New York Regional Economic Development Council is supporting the rollout of “Dream It, Do It” through a $500,000, three-year grant for five counties. The grant is structured to match private-sector dollars, so fundraising will support the rollout.

“Dream It, Do It” has been used in Chautauqua County since 2009. Organizers say it has reached an estimated 7,000 middle and high schools students through career fairs, school presentations, training sessions and technology tours.

Enrollment in technology programs at the Manufacturing Technology Institute at Jamestown Community College has risen by 42 percent, and mid-size and large employers are strongly involved in the “Dream It, Do It” program, according to the program’s coordinator in Chautauqua County.

Cummins Inc., which has a massive engine plant near Jamestown, is among the program’s proponents. The company has held tours for students, hosted interns, delivered high school curriculum at its facility, and participated in career events, said David Porter, the plant manager.

“It is my hope that we can get more manufacturers to participate and benefit in the same way we have,” Porter said in a statement.

Cattaraugus and Allegany counties have also introduced the “Dream It, Do It” program.

Erie and Niagara counties are working on setting up their respective programs. A private-sector fund-raising drive in Erie County began in late September and has raised about $7,000 toward its initial fund-raising goal, Powell said.

A kickoff for “Dream It, Do It” was held in early October at Hebeler Corp. a metal fabricator in the Town of Tonawanda, The event was timed with National Manufacturing Day.

The funds raised for “Dream It, Do It” will help pay for a local coordinator, who will schedule in-school activities such as classroom presentations, technology tours and career-awareness events, Powell said. The coordinator will also meet with industry and education stakeholders.

In Erie and Niagara counties, the full rollout of “Dream It, Do It” is expected to take place in a mix of urban and suburban schools for the start of the 2013-14 school year.