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New Delmarva Corrugated workforce partnership thinks out-of-the-box

Katie Tabeling
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Delmarva Corrugated Packaging Chairman Dennis Mehiel thanks Delaware officials for its business climate during a Friday event. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

DOVER — Don’t call it a ribbon cutting, call it “reopening the box.”

Delmarva Corrugated Packaging in Dover announced on Friday a new partnership with Autism Delaware to help fill some of the open positions the “super plant” has worked to fill in the three years it’s been open for business.

To celebrate the new partnership, U.S. Sen. Chris Coons U.S Tom Carper, Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester and Delmarva Corrugated Packaging Chairman Dennis Mehiel cut a ribbon on the facility on Friday afternoon.

“It’s amazing to me personally to have been part of the change in the industry,” Mehiel told Kent County officials and other dignitaries. “In 1966 when we started, one of the big companies in Baltimore ran on 250 employees for 40 million square feet of cardboard. Today, we produce 160 million square feet with less workers. The reality is that to keep up in today’s world, we have to keep up with efficiency.”

That efficiency was the main driver as to why Meihel first opted to move his operations from New Jersey to a 40-acre site off Route 15 in Kent County in 2021. In an exclusive interview with the Delaware Business Times in 2020, he said that the plant would generate approximately 250% more boxes than the New Jersey facility and bring in $120 million in additional revenue per year.

Delmarva Corrugated Packaging has about 90 employees for its nearly half-a-million plant. A new partnership with Autism Delaware hopes to fill more jobs. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

Delmarva Corrugated received a series of incentives from local and state officials to relocate in the First State, including property tax abatements, Transportation Infrastructure Investment Fund grants as well as $3.1 million from the Delaware Strategic Fund. In addition, the plant is in an Opportunity Zone, which means that Meihiel could see 10% of the gain excluded from taxes if the plant remains in five years – 10 years would result in tax-free gains.

“The [federal government] is one of my partners here and the reception we have received from the state of Delaware, the county and municipalities could not have been more welcoming,” Meihiel said.

Still, the $91 million Delmarva Corrugated Packaging plant requires three shifts between 120 to 160 people to run at full capacity. Right now, it’s running on 90 employees.

That’s where Autism Delaware comes in. The nonprofit organization serves as an advocacy group for people and families affected by autism, but it also has a program dedicated to placing its clients in jobs and volunteer opportunities.

The Productive Opportunities for Work and Recreation, or POW&R program, is tailored to the needs of each individual. Some adults may require daily one-on-one services while others may need less support. That individualized support is what caught Delmarva Corrugated General Manager Todd Simmons’ attention.

“It’s a very modern plant and we have a lot of entry-level positions. Not everyone can fit research and development, but there’s still jobs that can fit their participants,” Simmons said. “We’re looking for everything from entry-level to skilled operators and we’re still at about 60% capacity. Because we’re so automated, most of our equipment can be run on an iPad. But it’s also teaching repetitive movements.”

Autism Delaware Executive Director Brian Hall told DBT that the POW&R program crosses all industries, from lumber yards and restaurants to pharmacies, tech firms and more.

“I have some people who are smarter than me participating. It’s really about figuring out what works for that one person. Some of our participants can easily transcribe files and digitize them. Others can look at code and find the one, tiny error that’s causing the problem,” Hall said.

“This partnership isn’t just about work, it’s about quality of life,” Hall added. “If one person gets placed here this year, that’s already a success. That’s building on the company’s vision and goals. We’re just happy to be a part of it.”

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