DEDO’s Levin talks about port, people skills and economy

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Alan Levin has first-hand knowledge of the growing need for improved people skills.

During his career as CEO of Happy Harry’s, the director of the Delaware Economic Development Office did his share of hiring employees for the Delaware drug store chain that was later purchased by Walgreens.

“I can teach you how to operate a cash register, but I can’t teach you how to smile,” he would tell applicants.

It has come as no surprise to Levin that growing amount of feedback from employers pointed to the need to improve what are sometimes known as “soft skills.”

According to Levin, the state is now at work to find ways to better prepare job-seekers for a workplace that is putting a premium on teamwork and customer relationships.

Levin confirmed the focus on people skills in a phone interview last week. The development secretary also commented on a number of economic issues facing the state.

The emphasis on people skills comes as the state and business community wrestle with a sluggish economic recovery that has kept the unemployment rate stuck around 7 percent. At the same time, employees have reported greater difficulties in filling some positions.

Levin says a good job is being done to train workers in job categories, where demand exists, thanks to relationships with Delaware Technical Community College and other institutions. Soft skills remain a tougher challenge.

While attention often centers on younger people entering the workforce without an ability to make eye contact or thank customers, Levin says the need to improve people skills extends to all age groups and a wide range of employment situations.

Gone are many jobs where individuals could work in relative isolation. In addition, many employers are opting for a team approach that requires more interaction with coworkers.

Turning to other issues, Levin says the state is optimistic about retaining the Dole fruit operation at the Port of Wilmington.

The port is in competition with Paulsboro, N.J., up the Delaware River from Wilmington.

Levin says Dole has been happy at the port, but says the 2015 contract expiration date means other suitors could call on the company. One issue is whether concessions can be worked out with a local which represents dock workers. Another union local has already agreed to concessions.

He noted that the General Assembly has authorized improvements for the port, including new crane equipment. The custom-made cranes are built in Europe and take two years from order to delivery. Dole wants easier access to and from the port, but that project will not be undertaken until a contract is signed.

Levin said the situation with Dole is not tied to the decision earlier this year by Kinder Morgan to abandon talks to take over management of the port. At the time, the energy transportation company cited the president of of union local as the reason the company walked away. Levin, who chairs the state panel that oversees the port, said he would not be surprised if other bidders emerge for the Dole business.

Asked about prospects for a lease for drug developer Incyte, Levin said the company wants to stay in Delaware and it is now working to secure a lease. The state has agreed to offer a financial package to the thriving company.

The issue of a lease for the company, now based at the DuPont Experimental Station, surfaced in reporting over a legal controversy among brothers of the Capano family, owners of the old Wanamaker building near Wilmington.

The site has long been rumored to be the new home of Incyte.

A story in the News Journal indicated one brother has been battling with another over whether the lease would be a good deal.

A lawsuit involving the controversial family has made its way to Chancery Court.

In the meantime, the development secretary says he has seen signs of a strengthening Delaware economy, due in part to a recovery in the housing market, especially in Sussex County. That county was hit by a slowdown in new home construction, but has seen signs of a recovery in that area.

A real estate recovery is also under way in Kent and New Castle counties, he said.

Levin also sees better times in retailing, based on his days in taking a look at operations of competitors of Happy Harry’s. Levin would take a look at the number of bags carried by customers. Based on those informal observations, consumers are buying more, a sign that the economy is faring better these days.

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