If you’re unemployed and looking for something to do, I’ve got just the thing for you: make sure you’re the best at what you do.

Now, this isn’t a new idea. People say all the time that you should continue to build on your abilities, thus making yourself more marketable to potential employers. The difference here is that a lot of people may think that they’re “good enough” or “can get the job done.” But in this tight job market, if you can do your job without any assistance from employers, you’ve already got a leg up on other job seekers.

That’s according to The Conference Board, which earlier this month put out a report showing the struggles U.S. companies continue to have with “an ill-prepared workforce, finding new hires lack crucial basic and applied skills.”

The Conference Board, a 90-year-old nonprofit that knowledge whose goal is to help businesses strengthen their performance, spoke to 217 employers in a wide variety of industries – from financial services to government – to figure out what employees, and employers, are lacking.

Almost half of the companies that responded to the report, titled The Ill-Prepared U.S. Workforce: Exploring the Challenges of Employer-Provided Workforce Readiness Training, said they have to provide readiness training for new hires, who include high school, two-year college and four-year college graduates.

Among the top skills the companies said new hires lack were critical thinking and creativity skills. The Business Roundtable, an organization that brings together chief executives from some of the biggest U.S. companies, has called for greater collaboration between businesses and education institutions to make sure workers are prepared for jobs.

The Roundtable’s new Springboard Project will formulate policy recommendations to the Congress about how the government can help spur cooperation to yield more highly-trained workers. This comes as President Obama has said ongoing job training will keep America, and Americans, competitive in the global workforce.

Further complicating America’s problem is that companies seem unable to run successful readiness training programs, meaning any on-the-job training is mediocre at best.

“The results of this study demonstrate how critical it is for companies to be more strategic and focused on efforts such as providing internships and working in partnership with community colleges on workforce readiness initiatives to prepare new entrants before they enter the workplace,” said Donna Klein, executive chair, Corporate Voices for Working Families, which partnered with The Conference Board, the American Society for Training & Development, and the Society for Human Resource Management on the report.

“It is a losing strategy for employers to try to fill the workforce readiness gap on the job. They need to be involved much sooner to prepare new employees to succeed,” Klein said.

So it’s clear that both employee and employer need to work on improving worker education. If you’re an employee, there are plenty of ways you can improve job skills even while you’re unemployed. And doing something will help you get over figuring out how to answer the question: What do you do?

One interesting example (I’m sure others are out there, I’m no expert) I’ve found of business and higher education coming together is in Spokane, Washington. The Institute for Extended Learning marries the need to get more highly-trained workers with the money to do so. A program like this provides matching funds to companies willing to fork over cash to get workers up to par to do everything from build green homes to run IT departments. Many local community colleges have such programs, so it’s up to you to find out if your local institution participates in such an endeavor.

Another route is to volunteer somewhere you think will offer you skills that will improve your current ones. If you need help typing, do office duty. If you need help running philanthropy database programs, manage one. With companies hurting for cash, volunteers are in high demand – and these opportunities do often lead to full-time jobs.

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