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VIEWPOINT: A plan to grow Delaware’s workforce

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One takeaway from a recent forum with workforce development board chairs from other states is that many of those states have the same challenge as Delaware. Employers across the nation face a shortage of individuals to fill critical job openings, yet many individuals in our states have difficulty finding employment.

Scott Malfitano Delaware Workforce Development Board CSC

Scott Malfitano | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

The Delaware Workforce Development Board (DWDB) exists to tackle such paradoxical challenges. Our focus is developing a “farm system” of individuals ready to join and contribute to the state’s workforce. Some of these initiatives are easy to implement; in fact, some are already in various stages of development. Candidly, others will be difficult.

These efforts are too important to wait until an individual is ready to seek employment. We must be proactive by starting earlier and being more focused. We must address specific areas of such focus: individuals with or working toward college degrees, key workforce contributors without degrees, and those who are currently underutilized in the workforce.

More than 50,000 students are currently enrolled in Delaware’s colleges and universities, and we must encourage as many as possible to stay in Delaware upon graduation. These initiatives are especially important for students from out of state. We need a concerted effort, starting well before graduation, to get them out of their campus bubbles and show them Delaware is a great place to live and work.

Another good idea would be to institute the first statewide co-op program in the country, where college students learn “beyond the textbook” by working for Delaware companies. Students earn credit and are paid by Delaware employers that will, in turn, have an established pipeline of higher-skilled individuals already familiar with the employer’s culture ready for a full-time hire. There are 10 Delaware employers on board and ready to move forward with this initiative.

Similarly, the success of the Intern Delaware initiative to encourage and support those seeking summer internships in Delaware is seen in the number of applicants often outnumbering the available slots at certain employers. Let’s leverage this success by creating a pool that applicants not accepted by their first-choice employer can opt to join so that all employers can scan and evaluate these individuals.

Importantly, more than half of Delawareans age 25 and older do not have a college degree. We must embrace the movement to drop degree requirements for jobs where they are unnecessary. Our neighboring states of Pennsylvania and Maryland – our competition for employees and talent – have already made this important change for state employment. We expect more than 30,000 Delaware high school graduates over the next four years, and those not going to college deserve a wide range of options for advancement. We must continue to drive innovation in our vocational education system and identify and expand on the successes of trade sector employers that focus on recruiting and training individuals for these well-paying careers.

We cannot lose focus on under-utilized segments of our population. DWDB’s recent employer survey showed employers are ready to hire individuals seeking a second chance. JPMorgan Chase has been a leader in Delaware and around the country championing this initiative. Success will require concerted effort by corrections facilities, businesses, and community organizations in developing the right mix of basic skills training, coaching in interview techniques, mentoring, and more. Employers will have to step up by agreeing to hire individuals who obtain the needed skills upon their release and even helping in the pre-release coaching.

Also critical are initiatives for individuals re-entering the workforce, such as parents of grown children, parents and other caretakers returning post-COVID, and those leaving the military. Think of these efforts as “returnships” that help those rejoining a work environment that has changed significantly.

Nor can employers ignore current employees. This is no time to shortchange efforts to ensure that employees continue to grow in needed – and often changing – skill sets. Such “upskilling” is critical in providing advancement opportunities for these employees and maintaining their loyalty and initiative, helping their employer specifically and Delaware’s employment gap in general.

Finally, we must never lose a return-on-investment mentality. Our state is investing millions of dollars in training efforts, and it would be short-sighted if we failed to evaluate each program and initiative. DWDB has worked hard to evaluate the training providers it supports to see which are excelling and what key success factors can be shared with others. One goal should be that every program funded by the state has at least three employers aligned and ready to hire individuals who have completed the training.

These ideas certainly do not represent a complete blueprint for building a robust farm system, but this would be a much-needed start.

Scott Malfitano serves as chair of the Delaware Workforce Development Board.

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