Local businesses are looking for a workforce that is ready to hit the ground running, and one result is that the face of education is changing.
The 20th annual Sussex County Today and Tomorrow Conference was held Oct. 30 at Delaware Technical and Community College in Georgetown. The conference focused on employees as a company’s most valuable asset.
A panel that discussed jobseeker preparation featured three students from Delaware New Tech Academy – a high school within Seaford High School that teaches students through project-based group work, rather than through textbooks and lectures.
Addressing the more than 200 people who attended, Junior Richard LaMontagne said at New Tech, he learns the same information as students at Seaford High. “We just learn it in a different way,” he said.
Richard said each person in a group is assigned a job, and the group can fire members who aren’t pulling their weight, forcing them to complete the project solo.
Sophomore Kiara Kilgo told the conference that group work at New Tech teaches students to work with people they do not get along with, much like a real workplace.
Senior Jennifer Vasquez-Cantarero said New Tech has taught her to break out of her shell, from a student who wouldn’t raise her hand to answer a question, to someone who is comfortable speaking publicly. Jennifer also said New Tech teaches time management by forcing students to meet project deadlines.
The panel also included two Sussex residents who found professional success in unconventional ways. Kevin Fleming said he graduated from college with a degree in history, which left him with no job skills and $30,000 in debt. He spent summers working at a restaurant in Bethany Beach for 15 years before he decided to enroll at Del Tech to become a nurse, he said. Fleming is now a registered nurse at Nanticoke Health Services.
Travis Carter said he dropped out of high school to work at his family’s business, Sam Yoder and Son. After eight years, he quit to apprentice in metal work, which meant he had to move in with his parents, he said.
Carter said he worked his way up in the metal industry, and he is now a fabricator and welder at Miller Metal Fabrication in Bridgeville. He said he is also in the process of starting his own art metal business, Atomic Arc-work.
Not every accomplishment has to be academic, Carter said.
Other speakers reflected back on the first two decades of the conference and discussed how Sussex County’s economy has changed and continues to grow.
Delaware Economic Development Office Director Alan Levin said tourism increased this year, in contrast to the state’s lagging economy over the last six years.
Edward Simon, DEDO workforce analyst, said the population in Sussex County has increased 67 percent in the last 20 years, and it continues to grow.
Simon said the average age in Sussex County is higher than Kent and New Castle counties, and the growing number of retirees will create many new jobs in the health services industry.
Owners expand businesses, workforce
Mariah Calagione, vice president of Dogfish Head, said the company’s newly acquired hotel, the former Vesuvio in Lewes, should be open by summer 2014. The existing 15 rooms and one suite will be retained, but cosmetic changes are planned, she said.
No beer will be served in the hotel, she said, but guests will have no trouble finding Dogfish Head beer at restaurants and package stores in walking distance from the inn.
Calagione said she is hoping people will not spend their vacation inside the hotel room, but will patronize other businesses and venues Sussex County has to offer.
The expansion also means more local jobs, including hiring an off-centered innkeeper. Calagione said Dogfish Head is ever changing, and executives look for new hires who are flexible and whom other employees will embrace as part of the Dogfish Head family. “Our challenge is always sort of, ‘Can you hang out with us?’” she said.
Asked her advice on growing a successful business in Delaware, Calagione said give people something they enjoy at a reasonable price. “It’s an affordable luxury product that we’re making,” she said.
Stu Eisenman, whose ecommerce company E Revolution Ventures is based in Selbyville, said the company is growing rapidly. “We’ve never had an unprofitable year,” Eisenman said. “We’re projecting $50 million in revenue for the year we’re in now.”
E Revolution Ventures employs 113 fulltime workers, nearly doubling its 60 fulltimers in 2012, Eisenman said.
A panel of supervisors described their hiring process. Dan Schlabach, president of Atlantic Aluminum Products in Greenwood, said instead of putting customers first, his company puts the needs of its employees first. This company philosophy results in employees who work harder, and that leads to more satisfied customers, he said.
Cindy Dunson, human resource director at Dogfish Head, said the hiring process lasts at least one full day, and she looks for candidates who can own their job. “We’re not a culture of spectators,” she said.
Cathy Ressler, area manager for Wawa Food Markets, said Wawa attracts good candidates by offering tuition reimbursement and other benefits. She said the average Wawa general manager makes $100,000 a year.
Jennifer Scott, of Lead Your Way Solutions in Ocean View, asked the panel how it finds suitable candidates for employment. All three panelists said – aside from websites like Career Builder and Linked In – referrals from co-workers are often the best way to find new hires.
Keynote speaker Laura McCann is director of team member relations at Burris Logistics in Milford, and she is former human resources director for Grotto Pizza.
“It’s hard finding talent,” McCann said. She said in today’s workplace, there can be four generations of workers occupying the same space, and each generation brings different strengths to the job. “We need people to go above and beyond what their normal job requirements are,” she said.
Burris allows peer-to-peer hiring, rather than a supervisor interviewing and selecting new employees, McCann said. “Challenge your HR people to think differently,” she said.