Krissy Crouthers stands before some of the 30 U.S. Navy dock bumpers she has just coated with black and gray cement-like paint, mixed with epoxy. Earlier, her team drilled three precise round holes across the bumpers’ tops, for bolts.

“So many different paints and materials,” muses Crouthers, who is deep inside General Tool Co.’s Reading plant on this Monday morning. She gives a wide smile. “I make something new every day.”

Crouthers graduated in May from both Amelia High School and Great Oaks Institute of Technology and Career Development, the Sharonville-based career technical school district that serves 8,000 youth from 36 school districts, plus 52,500 adults annually.

Now she is an assembler at General Tool, a contract manufacturing business that creates specialty machines and equipment for the aerospace, defense, power generation and commercial industries.

It’s one of those high-tech manufacturing firms that state economics officials love to tout as Ohio’s future — the kind that embraces a global economy. The kind that is the antithesis of decaying factory buildings that whimper about thousands of jobs gone south.

The problem is that the Croutherses of the world are few and far between, says General Tool’s chief operating officer, John D. Cozad.

General Tool’s growth and success depends on high-skilled employees who can weld, machine and test precision equipment. But about 80 percent of today’s welders are over 50, Cozad mentions.

When it understood the magnitude of the skilled labor shortage, General Tool began investing brainpower, training ideas and co-op experiences at Great Oaks. Its plan: Grow its own employees in its own educational backyard.

Luckily, the company found a like-minded partner: Robin White.

White, Great Oaks’ president and CEO since 2003, oversees the largest career tech district in the country, one that offers programs from health to pre-engineering to automotive technology.

White also is among those leading the charge in Ohio, and nationally, for measurable accountability in the U.S. educational system, and for strong links between education and economic development needs.

She has been an integral player as Ohio this spring consolidated several key workforce programs under the state Department of Development, now directed by Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, and reassigned the Ohio Skills Bank — an initiative to identify worker skill gaps and fix them — to the Board of Regents, which governs higher education.

“Currently, the skill-set of Ohio’s workforce is not consistent with the needs of the state’s employers,” reads Gov. Ted Strickland’s terse order making the workforce program changes that went in effect July 1.

Lt. Gov. Fisher chairs the governor’s Workforce Policy Advisory Board, of which White is a key member. “It is fair to say that most of our workforce solutions will come from vocational technical schools and community colleges,” Fisher says.

The bipartisan $1.57-billion Ohio economic stimulus plan, announced in April, includes $250 million for internship and cooperative-education programs like those that Great Oaks uses extensively. It requires a dollar-for-dollar match from the private sector.

The lieutenant governor and many others — at the state level and nationally — hold Great Oaks up as a new economic development model, one in which the state’s educational systems become better partners with its industries.

“What you see at Great Oaks is what the future of education will look like,” says Greg Harris, public policy officer for the KnowledgeWorks Foundation in Cincinnati who is now on loan to the Ohio Skills Bank.

But just five years ago, Great Oaks’ role in re-energizing Ohio’s economy was not so clear.

White took over the district at a time when many people saw vocational technology programs as faltering — not just here, but on a national level. Ohio’s economy was faltering, too. Consider this: Since January 2000, Ohio goods-producing sectors — manufacturing, construction, natural resources and mining — have lost 21.6 percent of their employment, compared to a national loss average of 10.1 percent. Ohio’s service-providing industries gained 2 percent employment, but nationally that gain was 9.6 percent.

To White, the solution is clear: Reinvent the system.

Recently, she sat in a conference room at Scarlet Oaks in Sharonville, the largest of the district’s four campuses, and talked about the changes she has brought to Great Oaks. The district has an annual operating budget of $43.9 million and faces a 2.7-mil property tax levy renewal in November.

In the past, Great Oaks had programs in upholstery and dry cleaning, White mentions. But when you walk through campus buildings today, White says, “You’ll see health care, health care, health care (classes here), because that’s what the workforce demands.”

We wander the halls of this 342,000-square-foot building, peeking into classrooms: Robotics. Dental office set-ups. HVAC training equipment. Automobile computer technology. Commercial kitchens, with a lovely dining room attached. Business and information technology labs.

The classrooms neatly mirror state “hot job” projections through 2014, which show Ohio will need workers who can nurse us, engineer and manage computer systems, educate our kids, operate high-tech manufacturing equipment and assist our dentists.

“Our mission is providing quality workforce development programming and services,” says White, stopping to snag a crumpled paper on the hallway floor. “We don’t have football, marching band and cheerleaders.”

In person, White projects the demeanor of the home economics teacher she once was — peppy, smartly dressed in a trim pink suit, friendly wide-set eyes and genuine smile.

Colleagues say her caring approach is part of her success as a leader. But she also wants action, and the proof is in these hallways. She invested $7.9 million in renovations to create a new atrium linking buildings together, a spacious library, student services area and administrative offices.

Continuing on the new image theme, she established a partnership with Hocking College, one that would allow students to earn college credits while studying at Great Oaks. Last year, 251 Great Oaks students took more than 3,000 college credit hours through Hocking.

Says White: “That telegraphs to kids, ‘I’m college material.’” She flashes her winner smile again, adding “Isn’t that cool?”

Five years ago, 23 percent of Great Oaks graduates went to college, White adds. Last year, 46 percent went on to college.

But partnering with businesses is the heart of her action plan. In addition to paying close attention to statistics on jobs and industry changes, Great Oaks established advisory boards at every level of programming. These boards are populated by officials from the companies it wants to serve, from secondary school through adult programming. The latter is because the school district plays a significant role in re-training Ohio workers whose jobs have been outsourced in new careers, as well as specialty training like law enforcement.

Great Oaks currently serves 44 Hamilton County police agencies with training and a firing range, as well agencies in Northern Kentucky and Southeast Indiana, private security and armored car firms, and federal agencies like the IRS and FBI. It also holds firefighting classes for 57 fire departments in Hamilton and Clermont counties, and for 24 U.S. military bases.

Back at General Tool, Crouthers says though she studied machining, she likes the interaction and variety of being a high-tech assembler. For now. In the fall, she says she will begin night classes at the University of Cincinnati Raymond Walters campus, moving toward her goal to become a mechanical engineer.

Last year, General Tool hired four Great Oaks graduates. This year, it was five, and this summer it has co-op students working across the plant, getting the hands-on experience that is so valuable to them and to the companies that need them.

Says General Tool COO Cozad: “We are building our future workforce one student at a time.”