The secret to finding good workers? This small business knows

FREDERICK, Colo. -- Colorado manufacturer Aqua-Hot has a lively business making heating equipment for recreational vehicles and trucks. Now if it could only find workers to make those products. 

The state's 2.3 percent unemployment rate, well below the national average of 4.4 percent, is making it hard for Aqua-Hot to fill its open positions. Measures such as partnering with local job-training programs and colleges, along with adding a gym and volleyball court to attract and retain workers, have helped, but the company still finds itself short-staffed.

 "We're a small shop -- we're about 39 employees," CEO Paul Harter told CBS News. "Per plan, we're down seven right now."   

Enter Skillful. It's a program created under the Markle Foundation, which teamed up with Microsoft's philanthropic arm, investing millions of dollars to help people find the right training and employers on how to recruit skilled workers. 

Harter learned from Skillful that Aqua-Hot's hiring managers needed to take a different approach to attract the right talent.

In looking to hire an engineer, for example, the company changed the description in the job listing and broadened the search to include people who might have related skills and versatility. Instead of asking for a specific degree, such as a bachelor's in mechanical engineering, or a certain number of years' experience, the team described the exact skills needed to fill the role -- and struck gold.

"What did we want an engineer to do? And a certified diesel mechanic looked at that and went, 'I have all of those skills,' " Harter said, noting the person had no degree or background in engineering. "And we hired him and he was a rock star -- he did a great job for us."

The lesson for Aqua-Hot and other employers? People often end up working in a field or job that doesn't match their degree or prior training, and that doesn't mean they won't excel. 

"How many of us get degrees and we never work in the field?" Harter asked. "I have a degree in commercial art, and this is what I do today."

One such employee is Shawn McPeak, who is now working in customer service and technical support at Aqua-Hot. "I'm one of the people here -- I'm a teammate, and that was a really great thing that they had, and I really liked that that was part of it," he said.

A cubicle away is former education professional Jessica Painter, who told CBS News,"The basic skills were there already, so it was a pretty smooth transition from education to this."

Both are glad for the change. For Harter and Aqua-Hot, keeping an open mind is now a core part of their recruitment strategy. When they think they find the right job candidate, it's often less about the person's degree than her degree of willingness.

"We have to change the way that we think about talent. We have to change the way that we look at the work we're asking men and women to do," Harter said.

-- Reporting by Alan Gionet, CBS Denver