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Hatchery Hack: How can we foster the next generation?

June 18, 2024  By Nicole Kirchhoff

Nicole Kirchhoff, on right, joined a panel of aquaculture employers at Aquaculture America 2024 to share experiences in workforce development. Photo: nicole kirchhoff

Training new employees takes a lot of time, and often money. Therefore, retaining great employees is highly valuable. But how can we as a community help foster the generation of great hatchery staff that will be around for the long haul?

Earlier this year, I was honoured to take part in a workforce development panel at the Aquaculture America 2024 conference where an industry panel shared what skills they look for in staff and the challenges they face in staffing. It was followed by a government and academic panel where they discussed current training objectives aimed at supporting industry in their staffing needs. 

The popularity of this session showed the need for an updated workforce training and skills description for aquaculture. And how we all need to work together for the future of our workforce. So let’s dive in. 

Encourage passion

Universities or technical colleges are great at setting the foundation for biological, chemical, physical or business foundations, training us on the newest generation of innovations and/or bringing together global perspectives into our local farms. Seeing a university or technical college degree on a resume can show not only the potential employees’ commitment to aquaculture but also a standard of background knowledge and skills.  

But universities can’t forget the soft skills. Employees and business owners also need to be good communicators, problem solvers, team players, self-motivated, have time management, organization, great hygiene, and interpersonal skills.  

Universities also need to feed that passion that drives us all to aquaculture. Remember we are farmers first and foremost. There is a limited salary, long hours, dirty tasks (they literally filmed several of the hit TV show Dirty Jobs episodes at aquaculture farms), and limited advancement opportunities.  

What motivates people to stay in this industry is therefore passion. Amy Stone from Aquatic Equipment and Design said it the best, “hire the attitude, train the skills.” Passion is infectious and teams built around people who live, eat, and breathe aquaculture make working in such a tough career very rewarding. Universities can aid in fueling this passion by exposing students to hands-on training, current farm employees to skills workshops, and the community as a whole to new innovations in the field.  

The great age divide

As much as I hate to admit, our millennial or Gen-X generation needs to start understanding the upcoming workforce of today. Not only do our attitudes need to shift to this modern generation, but so do our farms.  We need to modernize. Modernize how we keep and record data, monitor inventory, life support controls, and even how we communicate with each other internally and externally.  

In many ways, this will flip the dynamic of farms. The newer generation will become our teachers and guides in how to utilize and structure our farms to take advantage of this digitally connected world. We may have to learn how to utilize our devices to record data, to create searchable databases of how to operate, maintain, or troubleshoot different aspects of our farm, to collaborate with other departments within or outside our farm, and how quickly Big Data from the farm can be analyzed and interpreted to make high-level decisions in seconds. 

Before they retire, we also need to take the time to tap the lifelong knowledge and experience of the older generations and utilize it to inform the training manuals and AI computing solutions of the future. 

But bridging this generational gap may take effort, respect, and patience from both ends of the great age divide.  

Fostering team/community

We need to continue building a culture of belonging, respect, and breaking down barriers of exclusivity. Fostering connections and bonds within and between companies, universities and government, can greatly enhance the employee and community experience as well as the success and sustainability of our industry. As it was infamously explained, “even the person pushing a broom at NASA helped put a man on the moon.”

We need to encourage and incentivize collaboration at every level of a farm and between farms and research/government. Rewarding those who can and do communicate, unify, and lift an entire team up through accolades, leadership positions, promotions, grant funding, travel stipends, etc.  

Removing barriers such as expanding open-sourced journals, free webinars, training experiences, community events and lab or farm tours will continue to enhance engagement.  

Gamifying communication and collaboration can already be seen through badges on social platforms like the Aquaculture Information Exchange. 

But we cannot forget that sometimes, a simple “thank you” is enough of a gesture of appreciation that can boost morale and sustain commitment.  

Non-conventional paths

We need employees who have a basic understanding of plumbing, electric, fluid dynamics, and mechanical knowledge. We need employees who can diagnose and, at least temporarily, repair culture tanks or equipment. And can work well under pressure.  

Because in aquaculture things can go catastrophically wrong in only a few minutes and often in locations with limited access to tools or experts to aid in the repair.  

The truth is these skills are not taught in today’s universities or technical colleges and often not at home. Therefore, many of us business owners have looked for employees who have perhaps worked in construction and have experience with power tools; have worked as a boat mechanic; in a warehouse and can use a fork lift; or are ex-truckers and can thread a needle with a trailer. 

It was almost unanimous among us industry panellists: our best managers and employees often don’t have an advanced degree in aquaculture at all. Matching employees with these diverse non-conventional backgrounds with those who have advanced technical aquaculture skills is therefore very valuable to the employment goals of a business and therefore should not be overlooked. 

The power of retention

Aquaculture is one of those fields where hands-on training, experience, and cross-training yields value. You need that experience of failures to understand the options in troubleshooting the solution; thousands of hours of understanding what is normal with an animal, plant, or piece of equipment to know what is not normal. 

It often takes a year or more to adequately train and trust an employee with working alone or managing a portion of your business. And it takes decades for them to really be a leader to train the next generation. If retention is the goal, then we need to understand what it will take for an employee to stay in the field, or better yet, at the farm. 

But nothing will retain employees if we cannot afford to compete with the increasing cost of living.  Or as one farmer put it “with the corn dog factory next door.” This is where we need to come together and innovate as a community. The big costs of operating our businesses, like feed, fuel and labour, are not decreasing. Therefore, how can we run our operations with fewer employees who are each paid more for their time and experience?

A huge thank you to LaDon Swann, Director of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium and Christian Brayden, Project Manager of the Maine Aquaculture Association for organizing and moderating such a diverse group of industry and academic leaders and wonderful morning of open dialogue. I believe everyone gained a new perspective. And hopefully, this can aid those who want to train the next generation of our workforce or those who want to dive into a career in aquaculture.  

(Photo: Nickolas Sargent, Sargent Photography)

Nicole Kirchhoff is the owner of Live Advantage Bait LLC (www.liveadvantagebait.com), a wholesaler of warmwater marine fish, fingerlings, and eggs for baitfish and foodfish growout, research, and restoration located in Florida, USA. Kirchhoff has a PhD in Aquatic Animal Health and was Hatchery International’s Top 10 Under 40 in 2022. 

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