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EDITORIAL: Manufacturing is returning. Will Delaware be ready?

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Shining reactors like these at WuXi STA’s San Diego site will likely be a part of the future Middletown site. | PHOTO COURTESY OF WUXI APPTEC

When someone says “manufacturing,” I’d guess the majority of people’s minds immediately think about Henry Ford’s assembly line, where workers feverishly connect widgets to build a larger product.

Jacob Owens
Delaware Business Times

In Delaware, they might think about the long shuttered General Motors and Chrysler plants, or the once mighty production lines of DuPont, pumping out nylon, Teflon, polymers and more. At our southern end, they might think about chicken processing plants for Perdue, Mountaire and Allen Harim. In Kent County, maybe it’s the long-running Jell-O powder factory for Kraft Heinz.

Suffice it to say though, manufacturing doesn’t exactly elicit thoughts of the future and cutting-edge technology like fintech, life sciences and other industries might.

But it should.

Manufacturing has been growing in Delaware over the past few years in a big way, and it’s happening in ways that many people may not expect.

Last year, Delmarva Corrugated Packaging opened a 497,000-square-foot “super plant” in Dover after moving its operations from New Jersey. The plant, which aims to employ nearly 150 people, will produce dozens of truckloads of cardboard boxes every day. 

It’s not your grandfather’s production plant.

Delmarva Corrugated invested $91 million into the plant, marking one of the biggest projects to land in Kent County in many years. The automated corrugator machine can produce hundreds of miles of cardboard under the supervision of technicians. Delaware’s manufacturing history, central location and access to highways and rail lines helped land the employer.

And about 45 minutes north, Middletown is preparing to become a hub of Delaware’s most-promising manufacturing prospect: pharmaceuticals. While Delaware manufacturing subsectors like chemicals and instruments grew headcounts by about 4% and 11% in 2019, respectively, pharmaceuticals grew by 39%.

AstraZeneca and its predecessors have led the way, operating a 570,000-square-foot production plant near Newark, pumping out 550 million tablets a year representing about half of the multinational company’s sales, followed by other companies like Wilmington PharmaTech and Adesis. Meanwhile, other growing life sciences companies like Incyte, QPS, and Prelude Therapeutics are focused more on research and development here.

But last year Delaware landed WuXi STA Pharmaceuticals, a multinational contract development and manufacturing organization that mass produces drugs for some of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies.

It plans to build a seven-building campus developed over 189 acres off Levels Road, containing manufacturing plants for drug ingredients and final commercial forms, research and development labs, and administrative offices. By 2026, it will employ nearly 480 people, but it has expansion plans for as many as 1,200. If fully developed, the local investment by the Shanghai-based company would likely approach $1 billion.

The WuXi project is a major win for Delaware and Gov. John Carney’s administration, but it has created a new problem of expectations. WuXi expects to begin hiring hundreds of employees in less than three years, yet several large pharma companies are currently reporting some difficulty hiring all of the employees they need.

A recent survey of 18 employers by the Delaware Bioscience Association found that every firm had unfilled open positions, spanning research, business, or manufacturing. While bachelor’s and advanced degrees are in demand, most have open roles that only require a high school education, training certificate or two-year Associate degree. And nearly every company said they would be interested in stepping up training partnerships with the state or an educational institution.

While some bemoan the lower earning power for warehouse jobs that are becoming increasingly common, these jobs are ones that can support middle-class families. Ten of the survey respondents reported paying $60,000 to $70,000 for manufacturing roles with two paying over $80,000.

“The discussion and survey results confirm the immense opportunity to ensure Delaware’s economic future is powered by rewarding careers in life science manufacturing,” Delaware Bio President Michael Fleming said in a statement. “It is clear that we have to get this right – strengthening partnerships and expanding training programs – or other states surely will.”

He’s absolutely right, and the continued success of Carney’s move to the public-private Delaware Prosperity Partnership could quickly become his biggest headache. As important firms like WuXi invest big dollars here, they will expect leaders to adequately prepare workforces to support them and benefit in turn.

All it will take is one mega employer to say Delaware didn’t come through in creating the employees it needed for future prospects to suddenly make the First State their second choice.

The good news is that there is still time to prepare and execute training and marketing for Delaware’s suddenly awakened manufacturing sector. Scott Malfitano, the new chair of the Delaware Workforce Development Board, has already begun discussions with Delaware Bio, which is a good sign.

The governor would be smart to assign one of his top deputies to the effort as well to ensure that strategy is implemented and programs are invested in to make certain Delaware is prepared for the challenge. If done well, it could create a revived manufacturing industry that supports generations of Delawareans into the future.

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