F!RST Business: Looking Toward Labor Day

If you have a job, you couldn’t have it in a better state than Delaware. (If only we could get more paid vacation time&#13

There’s great news for Delaware companies looking to hire from outside or to keep their current employees from going elsewhere: The First State has been officially classified as a great place to work.

In fact, according to the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Delaware is the best place to work in the United States.

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The institute studies “basic issues of human and ecological well-being” by tackling big issues like globalization and macroeconomics, labor markets and living wages, and how economies can be affected through development, peace building and interaction with the environment.

The inaugural PERI Work Environment Index study “Decent Work in America,” which tallied criteria like labor relations, minimum wage, employment opportunities and benefits, fair treatment across genders and percentage of low-income workers, was the first attempt by the think tank to find the best state to work in.

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If that all sounds as if it has the crunch of some Massachusetts granola behind it, consider that workers of all stripes are exchanging the Rust Belt for the Sun Belt, abandoning the Northeast for the South and Southwest in droves. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 1990 and 2000, Philadelphia’s population dropped by 4.3 percent. The population of Phoenix, Arizona, rose by 34.3 percent.

Suffice it to say that the two places aren’t in a neck-and-neck race for fifth largest city in the nation because people decided they liked burritos better than cheesesteaks. Phoenix is always warm, the people are tanned and fit and, yes, there is a lot of great Mexican food. And to put the guacamole on top of the enchilada, as it were, the chances of having to shovel snow ever again are nil.

Faced with those brutal facts, there’s genuine concern among area governors and mayors—not to mention corporate recruiters and human relations execs—in Northern states that their best and brightest are leaving for places where the people tend to look their best and the sun shines brightest.

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In short, companies can offer the best jobs, the best pay and a 401(k) contribution that makes recruits want to dance a jig, but if they can’t offer it all somewhere that job hunters see as a great place to live, they’re left hanging like an unacknowledged handshake.

To more easily evaluate the criteria it believes determine a great state to work in, PERI broke its evaluations down into three categories: job opportunities, job quality and fair treatment. The study used data from 2004 to arrive at its conclusions.

Delaware, at No. 1, scored 89 out of a possible 100 points, though it didn’t score higher than second in any of the individual categories. (Scores in the three categories, also based on a total of 100, were averaged to arrive at the main figure).

The state right behind Delaware was New Hampshire, with a total score of 81. The states that did worst were, in descending order, Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana—and that was before Hurricane Katrina. Obviously, things have only gotten worse down on the bayou. If you’re a worker in New Orleans, it seems Mardi Gras can make up for only so much.

So what made our Small Wonder seem that much more wonderful in the eyes of the lab coats at UMass? We’ve got a rock-bottom unemployment rate (3.2 percent for ’04), with only 0.7 percent of those considered “long term” unemployed. After cost-of-living adjustments, the average worker in Delaware was paid $16.69 an hour for 2004, with 65 percent of workers receiving health benefits from an employer or union. The percentage of workers with employer-provided retirement plans came in at 48.

Workplaces here are also more fair when it comes to the fairer sex. (The institute decided ethnic factors varied too much by geography, so it excluded them from the study.) Though the average Delaware woman working a full-time job received the same percentage of a man’s wage as she did in Texas—84 percent—many more of the women in Texas held low-wage jobs. Delaware’s status as a right-to-work state and general friendliness toward labor unions also worked in its favor, as did its minimum wage of $6.15 per hour, which beats the federal minimum by $1.

If you’re surprised by the results, don’t worry—so were the number crunchers at UMass. James Heintz, an associate director and assistant research professor at PERI and one of the three authors who designed the Work Environment Index, said this: “To be perfectly honest, I would never have guessed that Delaware would come out on top.”

You were expecting, maybe, New Hampshire? I guess that’s what you get for underestimating the feisty little guy in the fight, Jim.

For his part, human relations executive Steve Selway knows about great places to work. He’s a recruiter for Newark-based W.L. Gore and Associates, named for the ninth time in a row as one of Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Places to Work in the United States, coming in this year at No. 5.

It’s a given that people will want to work for you when your company shows up near the top of such lists year after year. Still, Selway admits that he occasionally has to do some educating about how great Delaware is when folks from outside the region know us mainly as, um—well, they know us as something, surely. Steve, what do people say when you tell them a tasty new job at Gore awaits them in Delaware?

“You mean after they ask what state that’s in?”

Steve, apparently, is a comedian. OK, so after you clear up the fact that Delaware is a state, what comes next?

“I mention the lack of sales tax. That really catches a lot of people by surprise, and it’s always a pleasant surprise,” he says. “Secondly, I like to talk about the diversity of places to live.”

That diversity, he says, can be a huge attraction for prospective employees who often know little to nothing about the many facets of the Diamond State. Much of New Castle County has a suburban feel that draws many, while opportunities for city living still exist in Wilmington. The area is also rife with small-town atmosphere with towns like Newark, New Castle and the Ardens. The rural, meanwhile, is just a few minutes’ drive away. “My experience has been that if you find a house in northern Delaware that you really love but can’t afford, you can find the same house below the canal for $100,000 less,” Selway says.

The state’s proximity to cultural attractions in Philadelphia, New York, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore is “a really big deal to people coming in,” he says, as is the mild Mid-Atlantic weather. “We’ve got four real seasons here. But one of the other things I talk to, especially with people from the north, is we’re situated between the two bays and we often don’t get the snow, but you can drive 10 minutes north and find the snow,” Selway says. “If they’re coming from Minnesota or Maine, that’s something they really enjoy.”

So apparently those from states that are downright Arctic don’t need Arizona winters to prompt them to move. A nice, manageable 10 inches of snow over the course of the winter will do them just fine.

Of course, there’s also the proximity to the beach. “I’ve talked to people in Texas, and it takes us less time to get to the beach than it does for them to get to the next town,” he says. “You can go down to the beach for dinner, and it’s like being on vacation. Then you can turn around and come back, go to sleep and be at work the next morning. That’s pretty unique, I think.”

Selway also emphasizes Delaware’s progressive attitudes, strong communities and good schools. With everything the state has to offer, Selway reports excellent results. “I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone come to look at a job and turn me down for the area.”


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