Q&A with Bernice Whaley, state director of economic development.

From gunpowder mills to advanced fuel cells, manufacturing has centuries-long roots in Delaware.

As Kent County Economic Director Jim Waddington points out, manufacturing jobs today look very different from 40 or 50 years ago. “You don’t go in and swing a sledgehammer; you really have to understand new technology.”

It’s still a key cog, worth $4.55 billion in 2013, according to the National Association for Manufacturers and employing 25,200 people in 2014.

Bernice Whaley, Director of the Delaware Economic Development Office, says old fundamentals persist, while new legislation could help encourage job growth just as workers are being better trained to meet the market.

  Q What are manufacturing’s main strengths? What is most promising for growth?

A Our central geographic location on the East Coast means quicker time to market, which means lower transportation costs and ease of access. We have a very longstanding history in manufacturing and have a great reputation for government support, on the state, county and local level.

We have tax credits and those sorts of incentives. The biggest strength would be our educated, skilled workforce, very productive, in value added per worker.

As far as growth, since about 2013, we’ve seen an uptick in general, but specifically in manufacturing of machinery; computers and electronic products; electrical equipment, appliance and components; and petroleum production and refining. The pickup is very subtle but there is pickup.

Could you point to an example of companies taking advantage of these strengths?

Bloom Manufacturing [a clean energy tech company] would be one in this category. But we’ve also seen investment from abroad. For example, AB Group Packaging is a paper bag and packaging producer based in Ireland, and they opened their first facility in the country here last year. There’s also Uzin Utz [a German flooring materials company that opened its doors outside Dover last year]. We’re seeing a lot of interest from international companies.

Q What external factors or national trends support the sector or affect job growth?

A The new corporate tax bill, the Delaware Competes Act, really takes a look at the way Delaware apportions its income tax, simplifying it. So [taxes are] less of an overall factor on revenue, and encourages business to add jobs here.

I think everyone’s wrestling with this idea of making sure people have the right skills and workforce training.

We have partnership with the Delaware Manufacturing Association as part of Pathways to Prosperity, whereby high-schoolers are able to get 200 hours in a manufacturing center so they’re getting real work experience.

Q Do you see any potential challenges to growth over the coming year?

A DuPont’s a big deal right now, but there’s another side to it. There are a lot of [former DuPont] teams that now want to start up their own businesses. Our state growth has been so dependent on our entrepreneurs; they’re the ones growing our economy.