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Will technology and innovation be the key to attracting young people to work in aquaculture?


September 18, 2020
By Liza Mayer


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Photo: Virginia Tech

Controlled environment agriculture” sounds like a mouthful and perhaps an unfamiliar term to some, but on it could rest the future of aquaculture.

The phrase is an umbrella term under which technology-based approach in food production falls, for instance, recirculating aquaculture, aquaponics, hydroponics and aeroponics.

Academic and research institutions are leading cutting-edge research in these fields but they also play another crucial role: providing the industry with a qualified, adequately trained workforce.

Recent heightened interest and investment into technical food production systems have put the industry’s manpower shortage under the microscope.

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“I can think of two (investors) right off the bat that I’ve spoken with in the last three months and both need to hire, in a three-year horizon, between 80 and 120 people per location,” says Dr. Michael Schwarz, director of the Virginia Seafood Agriculture Research and Extension Center.

He says the massive U.S. seafood deficit has attracted significant domestic as well as international capital over the past two years and this is powering the expansion of U.S. aquaculture. The Trump administration’s executive order in May 2020 sought to promote the competitiveness of American seafood. It would remove barriers to aquaculture in order to help the industry expand.

“Investors see the benefits to taking their capital and their technology and engaging in the U.S. production sector to access the U.S. market. They see the potential in having production in the U.S. versus importing, and from their perspective exporting from Central America, South America, Europe or Southeast Asia. That’s accelerating, and it is exacerbating the demand for workforce development, there’s no question.”

Founder and CEO of recruitment firm AquacultureTalent, Cristian L. Popa Aved, says the aquaculture industry has expanded “extremely aggressively” in the last five years but various academic institutions’ capacity to churn out a trained workforce has lagged.

While official U.S. government data specific to aquaculture workforce is unavailable (federal agencies lump aquaculture under the category “other animal production”), anecdotal evidence suggests that the shortage of skilled manpower is a reality that companies are grappling with.

Seafood farmers in Canada face the same problem. According to the report, “Labor Market Forecast to 2029” released by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council, there will be 600 fewer people in the aquaculture workforce over the next 10 years, as workers retire and the industry expands. Farm operators expect to grow over the next five years to meet the strong market demand for seafood. Labor shortages could prevent or delay those plans.

“Unfortunately, we’re still not getting the next generation jumping into the industry,” says Schwarz. “We’ve had ‘agricultural flight,’ as we’ve termed it, and this has been going on for a generation. Very little has changed in that aspect. The general trend continues. And it’s not just aquaculture, but agriculture in general.

“If we look at agriculture statistics, there’s a general reduction in agriculture farms in the U.S., there’s fewer family farms,” he continues. “The children that used to work on the farms are going into other sectors. I don’t have to go any further than my children or my friends’ children. They’re going to college, they’re going into engineering, computer engineering, software design.”

Key challenge
The Canadian report highlighted the rural location of most aquaculture operations as a key challenge in recruiting and retaining workers.

“It’s not for everybody,” says Brenda Bailey, assistant freshwater production manager at Grieg’s hatchery in Gold River, British Columbia, Canada. The small coastal town of roughly 1,200 doesn’t even have a grocery store. Some newly arrived workers sometimes forget this, Bailey chuckles. “So they come here with nothing, not even groceries. I say: ‘I told you there’s no grocery store here.’ There’s a pub, but it’s not for young kids, and there’s a gas station where one can get milk and some dairy and vegetables, but the nearest grocery store is over one-hour drive, in Campbell River.”

“In sea sites you’re actually living together, you can’t go anywhere,” she adds. “At the hatchery it’s a little bit different because you can get away from work. There’s hiking, there’s fishing, trail walks, caving, rock climbing. But yes, if you’re a young kid that is used to city life, it’s not the place for you.”

Bailey’s daughter Ashlee, who grew up in Gold River, is also assistant freshwater production manager at Grieg BC. The mother and daughter have been working together for a little over 10 years now, both starting out at the company as part-time hatchery technicians (See page 12).

“I don’t feel I’m missing out because I’m an outdoorsy person,” says Ashlee Bailey, on the limited social and cultural opportunities in rural communities. “I think as long as you’re an outdoorsy person, you’re good. I know a lot of people that I work with on my shift who love the fact they could go for a hike after work.”

The right fit
Mauricio Moreno, hatchery manager at The Kampachi Company, an offshore farm in La Paz, Baja California Sur, in Mexico, encounters challenges in recruiting young workers.

“Things have changed in the last 10 years,” he says. “I remember when I was just out of college I started working in a shrimp farm located far away from everything and I was really happy to be working there. And I thought that was the mindset of everyone that just got out of college. But what I have been seeing now is that people want to live in the city where they have everything. The new generation coming out of university is not willing to sacrifice their comfort when starting their professional life.”

Dr. John Supan, retired research professor at Louisiana State University (LSU) and retired director of LSU’s Louisiana Sea Grant Oyster Hatchery in Grand Isle, adds: “There are life challenges that come with youthfulness but there’s a lot of excitement in their minds and hearts because they’re out of college, which in itself is an achievement. They’ve got their degree and they’re glad to have a job in a field that they studied for. But over time there’s life’s other interests, whether it’s relationships, family or wanting a more youthful life than living in this small little coastal town where there’s nothing to do.”

This is why it is crucial to find people with the passion, not only the skills, for fish farming. Moreno says: “I choose people that are willing to develop a career in this field and are not simply here to have a job. People who want ‘just a job’ won’t want to sacrifice their comfort. Those who want to grow professionally in this field would be willing to make those sacrifices.”

Aquaculture recruiter Popa Aved says being the “right fit” for a job isn’t just about having the right qualifications and background, but also having the right personality traits. It is also critical, he says, that both employer and potential staff are clear about each other’s expectations.

“Our main priority is to find the right candidate from a different perspective: that he or she is qualified and has the personality for the job and that he or she understands the company. Most important is to have the candidate stay in the position. We don’t want to hear that six months later the candidate has left the job.”

AquacultureTalent, launched in 2016, has so far had 100-percent retention rate for candidates – from technician to CEO positions – it has placed with employers, according to Popa Aved. Specific to hatchery work, the firm has hired about 90 technicians and assistants over the past two years on behalf of clients worldwide.

“We always tell our clients that we want to invest a little bit more time with each candidate to make sure he knows what to expect. We ask the company to have the candidate over to meet management, co-workers, see the facility and location, etc., for a couple of days to a week before making the offer so the candidate can determine if it’s the right place for him and if he is the right candidate for them. About 80 percent of our clients are willing to do that. When it comes to senior positions, it’s a must,” he adds.

Misconceptions
The perception that work is financially unrewarding may be another reason why young people are not attracted to this industry. Popa Aved says there’s limited information available regarding the economic potential of careers in aquaculture.

“On the other hand we do have candidates that realize that salaries and benefits are much higher than other industries and they jump in and are willing to learn,” he says.

Dr. Louis R. D’Abramo, professor emeritus at the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture at Mississippi State University, says that aquaculture is still a young and minor industry in the U.S. so “young individuals may not be fully aware of the critical importance of aquaculture and the opportunities it could present.”

“They don’t see it as a job that, in fact, will contribute to the food security of a growing world population. Also, there is a lot of disinformation and misinformation about the quality of farmed seafood and the detrimental effects of aquaculture on the environment. Aquaculture is not viewed as eco-friendly.”

“I also believe that young people of this generation are not all interested in hard working and high-risk ventures. They are looking for instant gratification. When you have an infant industry, be prepared for setbacks and slow growth toward achieving progress and success. I think that the aquaculture industry is going to have to come up with some type of profit-sharing plans as incentive to get young people into the industry. Interest and devotion will ultimately come from being part of the company. There need to be avenues for promotion and, of course, good benefits.”

Brenda Bailey of Grieg BC says the retirement package at the company is something she hasn’t seen in any of her previous employment. “For every 1 percent we put in, Grieg matches it with 1.33 percent. The benefits are also good. And we’re always looking at new ways to train people or making sure that they are trained. We’re always trying to improve the health and safety of our employees. It’s a wonderful company to work for, let alone the industry.”

But the negative perception of aquaculture may also be a hindrance in attracting some youth. “When I tell people that I raise Atlantic salmon, the feedback is: Oh you’re one of those people,” says Bailey.

She believes the industry can capture the interest of the young people “if we just continue doing what we’re doing – because I think there’s such a bad name around farmed fish – being open and honest with the world and educating people, and by word of mouth.”

Bridging the divide
As traditional fish farming becomes more high-tech and controlled environment agriculture expands, perhaps the industry will encourage more youth to engage in the sector?

“A good question and I would say, yes,” says Schwarz. “If we look at Virginia Tech’s new SmartFarm Innovation Network, which contains the Controlled Environmental Agriculture Innovation and Education Center, we can take any industrial or academic discipline and fit it inside that program.

“SmartFarming and precision aquaculture incorporate new technology. At Virginia Tech we’re looking at SmartFeeds, SmartFarm, automation, robotics, blockchain traceability, big data management, and much more – these are large industry activities and requirements as we move into large-scale agriculture. These are all needs being expressed to us at summits with the industry, with the private sector.”

D’Abramo says the industry will require more trained engineers as production becomes more technologically advanced throughout the life cycle stages as well as post-harvest processing.

“There will also be a need for individuals who have a business background, most probably individuals who have earned an MBA with an emphasis in aquaculture business management. In the education area, there will be a need for individuals who are specifically trained and graduate from a two-year college with an Associates degree. There will be a special need for these workers as the industry matures. Individuals in these programs need to be educated about the level of work and risks involved and be afforded opportunities to work as part of an internship program.”

The story is changing
Schwarz says the issue of manpower supply has been a constant in discussions with the industry for the past several years, but over the past two years these conversations have become “more sincere and more substantive.”

“Whereas before it was ‘Yes, we’re looking for capital. We’re looking for a loan and if we get the loan and if we build it, it will create this many jobs…’ you know, the typical economic development cycle. But now it’s coming more to where the industry is starting to push, saying: ‘We’re going to need these people. Where are they coming from?’”

“So at Virginia Tech we’re now working more closely with economic development, state agencies and academia in developing aggressively a workforce development program, not just in anticipation but as a result of industry request for assistance to develop the workforce.”

“We’re not seeing significant growth in what we call the ‘homestead farms’ or small-scale farms, but we’re starting to see significant capital investment in recirculating aquaculture systems and aquaponics,” he says. “Barriers are lifting and boundaries are spreading. I think there’s more broad-based opportunities in aquaculture, in controlled environment agriculture.”

Another sign that aquaculture’s story is changing can be gleaned in display cases at big retail chains. While offerings include the usual favorites – shrimp, salmon, tilapia – the range is widening. “This shows aquaculture product is going into these main distribution channels, which signals the sector is maturing. This means these are large vendors because these large wholesalers cannot purchase products from very small farms,” says Schwarz.

“I was just at Costco the other day and there was farmed barramundi, Coho salmon and rainbow trout cultured in the U.S., and farmed snapper from Central America. What normally would have been fisheries-caught are now farm-raised. More of the seafood that’s there is farmed and it’s more appreciated because it’s no longer something novel.The industry is very proactive in doing many things right, we have quality, very safe seafood and it’s entering the market by demand. And that’s what drives industry,” he adds.


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