It’s been two full months since the Delaware Business Roundtable released its prescriptive Growth Agenda, a framework for economic development and growth in Delaware centered on three strategic goals.
Roundtable members and supporters were part of panel discussion last month at a meeting of the Greater Philadelphia Senior Executive Group at the University & Whist Club. Panelists discussed strategies to meet the Growth Agenda’s goals, which call for building an entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem; pursuing a new approach to economic development; and enhancing Delaware’s business climate.
The Growth Agenda encourages a reset of economic development in Delaware over the next five years. Much of talk focused on the need for a skilled workforce in middle markets like construction and a streamlined and business-friendly building approval process.
“Regionally, Delaware Valley is the fifth-largest ecosystem in the U.S.,” said Roundtable member Ernie Dianastasis, chairman of First State Innovation, a nonprofit initiative to foster an entrepreneurial environment in Delaware. The organization has already launched a “Delaware Ecosystem Road Map” a critical resource to attract businesses and prospective entrepreneurs looking to link to the area’s existing opportunities.
Dianastasis also touted the area’s proximity to major markets, and the region’s 92 colleges and universities, and said the state must use those selling points as leverage toward attracting new businesses and entrepreneurs. “The puzzle pieces are all there but it’s a question of what we do with it to make it happen,” he said.
“We agree that we stand to gain more by being part of Delaware Valley economy,” said Roundtable chairman Mark Turner. “We don’t have to give up our identity to do any of that.”
Lorri Grayson, president and co-owner of GG+A Construction, said the construction marketplace has seen a deficit in its workforce, which could impact future hoped-for projects and key infrastructure.
“The average age of person on our job site is 50,” said Grayson. “Who’s going to be around to build the projects that we’re proposing for Delaware? Children are encouraged to go to college but not every child is college material.”
Grayson wondered at the push toward college prep coursework from the state’s vocational high schools, rather than the focus on a skilled workforce.
Turner agreed that growing jobs in the First State should include a focus on skilled white-collar and blue-collar jobs.
“If you’ve had an education and a skill set’s that’s desirable, you’re doing pretty well, said Turner, president and CEO of WSFS Financial Corp. “But if you don’t you’re not. We’ve lost a lot of great jobs in the middle,” said Turner. “And a lot of people that had those jobs lost their skillset, got stale, or moved on to something else.”
Panelist John Stapleford, president of DeCon First, an economic consulting firm, said that manufacturing jobs are down about 30 percent and output is even. But he warned that without a “Right to Work” law in Delaware, there’s little incentive for major manufacturers to come to Delaware.
He noted that increased spending is Delaware’s “Achilles’ heel” and a net loss of 4,000 jobs in the chemical industry and nearly $ 262 million in wages. He said the Delaware job sectors experiencing the most growth are restaurants and janitorial services.
“We’ve refused to address the things in Delaware that would make us a viable economy,” said Stapleford.
The panel also noted Delaware’s slow approval process, a factor in attracting new businesses to the state.
“Delaware is a small state,” said Grayson. “It would be great to be able to say, ‘Come to Delaware we can things done quickly.’”
The Delaware Business Roundtable is a non-partisan, volunteer consortium of CEOs whose companies collectively employ over 75,000 people in Delaware.
Delaware Business Times co-sponsored the event.