By the end of March, roughly 1,700 DuPont employees will have found themselves suddenly out of work, victims of the largest mass layoff in recent Delaware history.
That number – roughly equivalent to the entire population of Delaware City – does not include workers being relocated, employees DuPont has shed over the last year, contract workers whose roles are being scaled back or former staffers at other Delaware companies that are also downsizing amid a weak global economy.
And it does not encompass future losses from DuPont business units leaving the state following the chemical giant’s planned merger with The Dow Chemical Co. later this year.
Collectively, those job losses could have long-term consequences for Delaware, particularly if those workers – many highly-educated and previously well-paid – depart the state in search of employment elsewhere.
“I’m worried for the state’s situation, honestly, not to mention the communities where those workers live,” said Jim Butkiewicz, an economics professor at University of Delaware. “We’ve already seen tremendous downsizing and to have 1,700 homes going up for sale at the same time would be difficult.”
Towns and cities throughout the country where major employers have downsized or left entirely have suffered decades-long ripple effects impacting everything from real estate values to public education.
A coalition of state agencies, university officials and various business groups is now working feverishly to prevent that kind of exodus from happening here.
“My administration is committed to a multifaceted approach that supports all DuPonters with opportunities to continue to thrive in Delaware’s workforce,” Gov. Jack Markell said Friday.
A quick start
The central focus of that effort is aimed at helping former DuPonters find new jobs or start companies of their own in the state.
And a significant portion of that work is being spearheaded by a pair ex-DuPonters: David Weir, the chemical giant’s former vice president for global research and development, and J. Michael Bowman, the founder and former general manager of the company’s Advanced Materials Systems.
Today, they lead the Office of Economic Innovation & Partnerships (OEIP), which oversees UD’s economic development efforts.
“What’s happening with DuPont is obviously a special situation,” said Weir, the office’s director. “But the response we’re putting together is an extension of the skills we’ve been building for years.”
To date, their efforts have involved organizing a number of events aimed at helping laid off DuPont workers find new jobs here or start companies of their own.
At the same time, state officials are working to encourage the creation of available lab space and startup funding, while universities are marketing their wide array of professional and continuing education courses.
“These are still early days and there’s a lot of uncertainty,” Weir said. “But it’s remarkable how fast this is coming together thanks to the communication that exists between the three legs of the stool, which are the state, academia and the private sector. I can’t think of too many other states that could do something like this so quickly.”
Searching for jobs
The work to keep former DuPont employees in Delaware began just weeks after the company announced its layoffs.
Rapid response teams from the state labor department worked with DuPont workers to present information to laid off workers about state unemployment benefits and the availability of job training and certification.
Those workers reportedly will receive a minimum of two months’ worth of full pay with an additional month’s salary for every two years of service, up to a maximum of 12 months. The workers also reportedly are eligible to receive a pre-approved $5,000 training allowance, along with a year of so-called COBRA medical and dental coverage at employee rates.
But even with those packages, hundreds of former DuPont workers are hoping to land jobs as soon as possible.
“For a lot of them, these are people with young families and mortgages that need to be paid,” Bowman said. “They’re looking for work with another company.”
To help facilitate that job search, Delaware BioScience Association, for example, is broadening the focus of its annual life science job fair this year to all science and technology industries. The March 23 job fair at the Chase Center on the Riverfront is expected to attract more than 20 science-based companies from throughout the region, each with dozens of job openings.
The trade group is currently accepting resumes from job seekers in the hopes of matching them up with prospective employers before the fair begins.
“Many former DuPont employees have extensive knowledge and training … and a desire to stay here,” said Delaware Bio President Bob Dayton. “It is clear that there is community interest in helping them during this transition to discover the next big step in their careers.”
UD also is working with Right Management, a job placement company hired by DuPont, to help laid off workers find new jobs among the university’s staff of roughly 4,000.
“Right now, we’re trying to line up matches where there is an intersection of existing need for us and the right talents and skills among former DuPont workers,” said Charles Riordan, UD’s deputy provost for research and scholarship. “It’s important that as many entities as possible step up because we all benefit when we have a well educated and employed population.”
To that end, UD also is planning two fairs next month to highlight its slate of professional and continuing education courses, offered at a 25-percent discount to “transitioning” workers.
Building new business
At UD’s OEIP, Weir and Bowman already have started working with a smaller segment of former DuPont workers who are interested in launching companies of their own.
Created by former UD President Patrick Harker in 2008, the office’s wide-ranging mission includes helping university researchers translate their discoveries to the marketplace through partnerships with the private sector. The OEIP also operates the Spin In program, which matches entrepreneurs developing early-stage technology with undergraduate students to further develop innovations and marketing strategies.
Under the OEIP umbrella, Bowman runs the Small Business Development Center (SBDC), a state and federally funded agency that provides free business consulting and low-cost training services to entrepreneurs.
“We’ve heard from about eight individuals and groups who are looking to start something on their own,” Bowman said. “I can’t identify anything specific at this point because they haven’t gone far enough down that road, but they are out there.”
Whether or not many of those potential entrepreneurs can turn their previous work at DuPont into new business ventures may depend on their former employer.
William Provine, DuPont’s director of science and engineering, on Friday issued a memo to current and former employees laying out how they can apply for the company’s permission to access certain intellectual property for possible future licensing.
“I think it’s going to depend on whether its something DuPont is interested in sustaining,” Bowman said. “But if there’s no interest or they’ve already closed down that project, I think there will be a process for these former employees to take it out.”
The SBDC, in cooperation with the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce, is planning to host a series of seminars in the coming months aimed at helping former DuPont workers through the often difficult process of starting a new business.
The Delaware Sustainable Chemistry Alliance recently held a similar event to raise awareness of the professional association’s new Innovation to Invoice program, which aims to help at least six startups apply for federal grants, develop business plans and garner seed funding.
Sean Wang, founder of B&W Tek in Newark and a board member of the Chinese Entrepreneur Association, also recently organized a forum designed to help former DuPonters learn how to launch their own companies.
“I went expecting a reasonable group of about 20 people,” Bowman said of the meeting at the Chinese American Community Center in Hockessin.
“There were 150 people and it was standing-room only,” he said. “The only reason we stopped was because the next group needed the room.”
Those potential entrepreneurs will face unique challenges if their business plans go forward, including the need for available lab space and seed funding.
Markell said his administration is working to create both.
The Delaware Technology Park, which houses the OEIP along with a host of startup companies, is planning to soon open a 10,000-square-foot wet lab at UD’s Science, Technology and Advanced Research Campus, known as STAR. That project is being partially funded with a $3 million, 10-year state loan approved in 2015.
The Delaware Board of Trade, a group trying to launch a new stock exchange in Wilmington aimed at small- and mid-capped companies, may prove to be a source for some early-stage business capital.
Markell, in his state of the state address last month, also called on the General Assembly to amend state law to make it easier for Delawareans to invest in startup companies through crowdfunding sources.
Weir and Bowman said they hope Delaware can attract outside venture capital firms to the state or encourage new investor groups to form, while convincing DuPont to make its stock of laboratory space available to private industry.
“Those two things might be our biggest challenges, but conversely, they could be our biggest opportunity,” Bowman said. “If we can get lab space and seed money, we can start going to Boston and California and telling companies to come to Delaware. We have a workforce you can’t match, opportunity to start today and it’s probably a third of the cost of those places.”
Weir said his goal is to turn Delaware’s ongoing outreach efforts to DuPont employees in the state’s future standard operating procedure for economic development.
“It would be a waste if this was all a one-shot affair,” he said. “This could be just the opportunity we need to put this infrastructure in place and set the state up to be really competitive going forward.”
Contact business reporter Scott Goss at (302) 324-2281, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ScottGossDel.