Kent Economic Summit emphasizes need for businesses to adapt to digital age

DOVER — Upgrading the county’s workforce and identifying land for future big businesses to locate were two dominant themes at the 10th annual Kent County Economic Development Summit on Tuesday morning.

The summit, hosted at Delaware Technical Community College’s Terry Campus in Dover, featured keynote speaker Michael Quaranta, president of the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce and Linda Parkowski, director of the Kent Economic Partnership.

The event also featured a panel discussion with local executives on how digital technology with transforming business opportunities. The conference is presented in collaboration with the Central Delaware Business and Entrepreneurship Consortium.

The annual summit brings hundreds of business owners, government workers and community organization staffers together to provide information on the goods and services in central Delaware, networking opportunities and guidance for entrepreneurs and established businesses alike.

Summit’s stated aim

The event’s stated aim is to “advance the common goal of improving the economic life in Kent County” through informing stakeholders, articulating current initiatives, identifying opportunities for collaboration and stimulating action.

Repeatedly driving at the theme of the summit — The Digital Transformation in Business — Mr. Quaranta said the state, like the nation, must prepare for an unpredictable future.

“We are about to enter a time in our country where we are about to see many disruptive changes in the economy,” he said. “We’re going to have new industries that are going to emerge in a brief period of time and adoption is going to be faster than maybe we’ve ever experienced before.”

Drawing comparisons to smart phone technologies and services like the ride-hailing app Uber that upended traditional industries very quickly, Mr. Quaranta said the county should focus on developing its workforce to meet anticipated needs.

“We have to be prepared for changes in our workforce, but more importantly, we have to have the tools in place to train and develop the workforce to tackle all the changes,” he said.

Reject conventional wisdom

However, he rejected the conventional wisdom of pushing university degrees on the working public.

“As I meet with business leaders up and down the state, I hear regularly that they need a qualified workforce — that doesn’t always equate to a four-year bachelor’s degree,” Mr. Quaranta said. “Back when I was in high school, 13 percent of the adult population over 25 had a bachelors degree.

“If you went to college and got a degree, you got a really good job — that model worked at the time. But now, almost 32 percent of the population over 25 has a bachelors degree and we’ve accumulated $1.5 trillion of student loan debt. At the same time, the Internet took off and other advances came out that helped businesses figure out how to consolidate and become more efficient, so there are fewer and fewer of those great jobs that used to exist.”

A more skilled and robust workforce could be developed faster and cheaper through more trade-focused or technical education, he argued.

“There are a tremendous number of jobs out there that can provide satisfaction and family success for a fraction of the price,” said Mr. Quaranta. “We need engineers and skilled trade workers because so many of those cohorts are retiring.

“There’s a void in credit analysts for banks in Sussex County. People with manufacturing skill-sets here in Kent County are only available if you poach from your business partners down the road. The financial industry in Wilmington needs a workforce with coding skills.”

Putting plans in action

With a more nuts and bolts approach, Ms. Parkowski explained how her recent appointment to the Kent Economic Partnership may soon yield results.

As a blueprint for action, Ms. Parkowski says the partnership is using a study of the county’s economic development prospects released by the Greater Kent Committee (GKC) — a non-profit membership organization comprised of CEOs and business executives in Central Delaware — last April.

The study, performed by Rockport Analytics, found that of the $1.6 billion local businesses spent on services annually, $775 million of those services were being imported from elsewhere.

In an effort to recapture these dollars, Ms. Parkowski said the business community should focus on three identified target industries: distribution, warehousing and logistics, healthcare and business and legal services. Her “year one” priority is warehousing.

“Even some of our main manufacturers actually warehouse products in South Jersey and Maryland — Kent County can do this,” she said.

Future development

She said over the past several months, the partnership has collaborated with the business community, local municipalities and real estate brokers to identify promising land parcels for future development and strategies for attracting suitable companies to utilize them.

The partnership also identified the long-stalled discussion of a logistics hub centered around the “civil air terminal” at the Dover Air Force Base. She claims that if a longer-term and more permissive “joint-use” agreement could be struck with the U.S. Department of Defense, a large air-freight firm may be interested in setting up shop there.

Ms. Parkowski noted that the partnership is also particularly excited about participating in the “master planning” process soon to take place around DelDOT’s newly-installed interchanges around Little Heaven and Frederica.

Most importantly for long-term economic vitality, Ms. Parkowski says the process for launching a business must be streamlined.

“The thing that came up loud and clear was that the processes for a business to come in and develop an entity in Delaware was broken,” she said. “It could take upwards from 24 to 36 months from the time you apply in the beginning to the time you can get construction going. Why should everyone have to call a legislator or the governor to get something done? Re-engineering this process is a key issue for the Kent Economic Partnership. One thing we’re already in talks about with the planning departments is standardized forms. Whether you’re developing something in Milford, Smyrna or Dover — let’s have the same form so that a business owner or developer can know that Kent County has streamlined forms.”


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