Aquaculture North America

Aquaculture America 2024: Soft skills are invaluable to employers

February 22, 2024
By Jean Ko Din

Aquaculture students presenting their research at Aquaculture America 2024. (Photo: Jean Ko Din, Aquaculture North America)

Passion and personality will make any aquaculture employee stand out anywhere.

Employers from across the North American aquaculture industry gathered at Aquaculture America 2024 in San Antonio, Texas to speak about their experiences in the current aquaculture job market.

“For me, it’s a personality thing first, and an education thing second,” said Amy Stone, owner of Aquatic Equipment and Design Inc. “I’m always listening, always watching, because there are people that I’m going to go look for. When I hear that they’re moving, or they’re looking to move, then I go and say, okay, hey, I have a position for you.”

Panelists for the workforce development sessions on Feb. 20 agreed that the aquaculture industry is a tight-knit community. Many warned about burning bridges while moving between jobs because many employers talk to each other on a regular basis.

“In my part of Florida, the rural parts, we have a lot of universities near us, so we don’t have issues finding employees. But, there’s a lot of fish farms around us and each other. So the hard part about leaving a farm, and salary chasing or wanting someone else, is that we all each other,” said Kirchhoff. “It’s a very small community. I think employees who do want to change need to be very upfront and honest that they want to do this in a responsible and respectful manner.”

An audience member shared about how his shellfish company worked out a deal with a neighbouring shellfish company to share employees. “When I need them, they’re mine and when I don’t, they’re yours. And my guys end up getting full-time work,” he said.

The workforce development panelists acknowledged that as employers, they also must do the work to make their companies more attractive to the younger workforce. Panelists agreed the career path is not as straightforward as those in the Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) companies down the road. Sometimes, the competitive pay is also a challenge in retaining valuable talent.

“At the end of the day, they have to know that there’s a future, but it’s not just what you’ve hired them for,” said Stone. “So one of the things that we concentrate heavily on is what is it that you want out of your career and how can we make that work within the confines of the business that we are? And so, there’s times when we’re sending them for training for things that really don’t necessarily have to do specifically with what we do on the daily, but it’s fulfilling for them.”

Deborah Bouchard, director of the Maine Aquaculture Research Institute, says that although they have been working on workforce development for many years now, the institute is not getting the volume of students that they want for their program. Bouchard says she gets phone calls from employers every day looking for graduating students that she can recommend.

“You don’t want to say anything negative about a student but if someone applies for a job and it’s not a person I think will fit with you, I’ll let you know about that,” she said. “But I do promote really good students that I know what to go into aquaculture. And I will make phone calls to people that I think are hiring and say, give me that if you’re looking for someone who’s going to be reliable, who’s really interested in doing this work, here’s this person.”

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