Economic development efforts in Delaware often focus on bringing new businesses to the First State. But attracting a workforce is also important – and a new effort to do that is getting started this summer.
It’s called Intern Delaware, and is focused building the pool of entry-level professionals in the state.
Contributor Larry Nagengast offers a closer look at the program this week.
Not even a pandemic could stop the launch of a new recruiting tool for Delaware – one designed to attract entry-level professionals, not new businesses.
Intern Delaware, a collaborative approach to corporate recruitment, is getting its start this summer, albeit on a smaller scale and in a different format than its creators envisioned.
The project is the brainchild of Scott Malfitano, a vice president of CSC, the state’s largest corporation service business, who notes that more than two-thirds of the graduates of Delaware colleges and universities leave the state for their first job.
“We’re competing with Philadelphia, D.C., Baltimore and New York, so we have to be prepared,” Malfitano says, and that means “showing interns the culture, the business community and what Delaware is all about.”
The goal isn’t just to hang on to grads of Delaware schools, he says. Equally important is latching on to interns who attend out-of-state schools and keeping them here after they accept job offers.
“The number one thing is awareness. People tend to think Delaware might be boring. If we give them more exposure to Delaware while they’re interning, we think they will find the state more appealing,” says Catrina Jefferson, a CSC market manager who serves on Intern Delaware’s board of directors.
For its first year, the nonprofit recruited a collection of more than 20 businesses that represent a cross-section of the state’s economy – big names like CSC, Capital One, DuPont, Chemours, M&T Bank and Highmark; regional stars and up-and-comers like Adesis, Agilent, Big Fish Restaurant Group, Buccini/Pollin Group, CompassRed, the Mill, Delaware Prosperity Partnership and WSFS Bank – that had plans to hire a total of about 350 interns this summer.
Since most of these businesses have internship programs of their own, the idea wasn’t to replace what individual companies were doing. Rather, it was to supplement and enhance those efforts by creating enriching experiences that would be more extensive that a single company could provide on its own.
“There’s only so many interns one company can bring in,” says Andrew Cottone, founder and president of Adesis, a contract research organization that supports the pharmaceutical, chemical and biomaterials industries. “As a collective community, the accumulation of that talent builds up and creates a unique ecosystem.”
“We invest a lot of time in interns and campus recruiting because it’s important to attract and retain high-quality talent,” says Melanie Fitzgerald, senior director of global operations at Agilent Technologies and an Intern Delaware board member.
Agilent has had great success in selecting interns whose skills are strong enough to gain job offers upon graduation, she says, but the company’s greater concern in retaining those young professionals after they’ve been with the business for a couple of years. “They’re very marketable and tend to look at other locations,” she says, “but if we can get them starting to build their roots in Delaware earlier, we think they’ll be more likely to stay.”
When the Covid-19 pandemic intervened in March, and Gov. John Carney declared a state of emergency, many businesses made quick transitions to hybrid operations, with small numbers of employees continuing to work in their offices while the vast majority carried out their responsibilities from home. As part of the shift, many businesses cut back on their internship programs – dropping participation to about 150 interns – with almost all of them are working remotely from their homes, many in Delaware but some in Maryland, Pennsylvania and more distant locations.
The anticipated social gatherings, designed to help the interns network among themselves and with other young professionals while showing off attractions like music and ethnic festivals, the Wilmington Riverfront, parks and historic sites, have thus far had to be shelved.
Instead of weekly in-person get-togethers, Intern Delaware went virtual, and “we’ve had meaningful communication in ways we didn’t anticipate,” says board member Doneene Damon, president of Richards, Layton & Finger, one of the state’s leading law firms.
Every Thursday afternoon, interns can participate in online presentations and conversations. Presenters thus far have included Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki, entrepreneur Ben du Pont, a group of CEOs, a collection of 30-something community leaders and, this week, the governor.
“Each one has been different. You think you know everything about the state but you don’t,” says Abbey Houseal, a Hockessin resident who just completed her junior year at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina. “I knew about Wilmington and the beaches, but I was never aware of the state’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
An economics and business management major, she’s interning remotely with the Delaware Prosperity Partnership, helping the public-private economic development group with research, social media and marketing projects.
“It’s really interesting to learn from these successful professionals,” adds Kana Turley of Newark, a senior political communications major at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She’s working remotely this summer with Intern Delaware, helping the new organization with its communications efforts.
The interns say these weekly sessions have been rewarding, but they’ve missed some of the richness they had hoped for in their summer experience, with the coronavirus costing them opportunities for face-to-face contact with professionals at their workplace and to get an up-close look at the state in their free time.
Alphonso McKenzie, of Ellicott City, Maryland, a CSC intern who has been able to work at the desktop support desk in the company’s headquarters west of Wilmington, still hasn’t had the personal interactions he had anticipated. “About 98 percent of the company is working remotely,” he explains, “so most of the office is empty.”
His opportunities to explore the area have also been limited because he has been commuting daily from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, because the lease on his apartment near Penn State’s Harrisburg campus has a few more weeks to run. Nonetheless, he’s finding his way around, having spent the last few weekends looking for apartments in the area.
“This is definitely a place where I can see myself staying long-term,” McKenzie says. Having just earned his degree in computer science, he says he has interviewed for jobs in several states “but CSC appeals most to me, so that’s something I’d definitely look forward to.”
Eseosa Wilkinson of Bear, who just finished his junior year at Delaware State University, fits the stereotype of the Delaware native who tends to believe that the grass is greener somewhere outside the state’s borders. “I wanted to move away. I looked at North Carolina, at Arlington, Virginia, and Decatur, Georgia,” he says.
Spending his summer working on economic development and marketing projects for the Delaware Prosperity Partnership while participating in Intern Delaware has made him reconsider. The economics major is looking for a career either in economic development or asset and wealth management. “I’ve found out there’s a plethora of opportunities in Delaware, plenty of chances to be the best you can be,” he says.
Patrick Callahan, founder of Wilmington’s fast-growing and nimble CompassRed data analytics firm, was not going to let the pandemic keep him from bringing in three interns this summer, even if they would be working virtually. “We weren’t going to give up. It’s too important,” he says.
Callahan, like other employers, acknowledges that not every intern will receive, or accept, a job offer after graduation. But that’s not necessarily bad. If interns find that their overall experience was positive, he says, they’ll tell their friends and classmates about the state and where they worked, in effect becoming marketing tools.
With so many businesses operating primarily on a remote basis this summer, interns have had experiences that weren’t quite as they expected.
Although Richards, Layton & Finger isn’t hosting any Intern Delaware participants this summer, Damon participated in one of the Thursday conversations and has been sought out by interns working at other businesses, including one looking for advice about whether to apply for law school.
Some WSFS interns picked up some practical experience directly related to the pandemic, helping with processing loan applications for the federal Payroll Protection Program (PPP), said Patrick Best, a bank vice president and talent acquisition manager.
Because she’s working remotely, Houseal hasn’t had a chance to get inside the Delaware Prosperity Partnership office in Wilmington, although a few members of the DPP team did invite her downtown for lunch. “When things calm down, maybe over winter break, I’ll finally be able to get into the office and get a tour,” she says.