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August 18, 2020

Growing aquaculture industry looks to workforce training

Courtesy / Gulf of Maine Research Institute A new report finds that Maine’s aquaculture industry would benefit from formalized workforce training. Seen here are mussel processors at Bangs Island Mussels in Portland.

Maine’s aquaculture industry is small, compared with seafood farming elsewhere in the nation and the world.

But it’s becoming increasingly diversified and industry experts see opportunity for expansion in various sectors.

That means more jobs are on the horizon, according to a new economic report produced by Portland’s Gulf of Maine Research Institute in partnership with the Maine Aquaculture Association and Educate Maine, with support from FocusMaine.

Currently, Maine’s aquaculture workforce exceeds 600 direct employees, plus auxiliary services and supported trades, according to the report.

By 2022, the workforce is projected to include 880 employees across production and related activities, and over 1,600 across the supply chain.

By 2030, the workforce could exceed 1,200 direct employees, and over 2,200 in the total production, supply chain and downstream markets.

The report — a collaboration of local partners, industry and outside experts from four Scottish consulting firms — identifies specific labor needs and charts a course for establishing a workforce training system to meet those needs.

Extensive interviews included established and prospective land-based operations, marine producers, service providers and supply chain companies.

The analysis identified gaps in existing training programs and provides short- and long-term recommendations for developing an aquaculture training system.

“It’s crucial for all of us to understand what workforce development efforts are required to realize the potential for Maine’s coastal economy and working waterfronts, so it’s exciting to be able to provide some of those answers,” Gulf of Maine Research Institute Aquaculture Program Manager Chris Vonderweidt, who led the 18-month project, said in a news release.

Making a career

The study stems from discussions with growers who find it’s hard to find reliable workers looking to make a career in aquaculture, Vonderweidt told Mainebiz.

“Maine’s aquaculture industry is incredibly diverse, growing sustainably and creating new jobs,” he said. “There’s incredible potential to grow this industry, which is valuable for both the economic and cultural value that it brings to working waterfront communities.”

This is particularly true, he noted, as opportunities dwindle in the wild fisheries. However, he continued, in order for Maine to achieve its aquaculture potential, it will need a skilled workforce. 

Aquaculture industries in other countries have undergone similar workforce challenges that ultimately became bottlenecks to industry growth, he said.

“Recognizing that Maine has a very young aquaculture industry that will evolve over time, we set out to utilize lessons learned and expertise from other countries, where they’ve gone through the growing pains of workforce development — so we could proactively address these issues before they hinder the industry’s growth potential,” he said.

He continued, “That’s not to say Maine’s industry would resemble countries that have very large aquaculture operations. But there are a lot of lessons to be learned.”

The report provides a forward-thinking approach to workforce development, with the goal of establishing a workforce training strategy before labor shortages become a problem.

For the past five years or so, the industry has employed 500 to 600 people. Although the numbers are small, they represent steady growth, he noted.

The industry has grown in Maine over the past decade. It comprises primarily small, owner-operator shellfish (oysters, mussels, scallops) and marine algae farms, mid-sized service providers, and large-scale finfish production operations. New production models, such as land-based recirculating aquaculture systems, are also emerging.

Business needs vary. But a common thread emerged from the study: an expanded pool of well-trained workers.

“Finding workers with the right skills is a year-after-year challenge for Mook Sea Farm,” said Bill Mook, owner of Mook Sea Farm. “I’m impressed with the proposed system that is founded on industry needs and prioritizes the type of training and experience to produce employees that can enable our continued growth.”

Formal training

The analysis revealed the industry places the highest value on the core skills of work ethic, life skills and problem-solving, basic trades (plumbing, electrical, mechanical, light manufacturing/fabrication), basic aquaculture husbandry and maritime operation. 

Those core skills are considered a foundation for further training in marine biology, food handling, management skills, and research and development.

Industry stakeholders believe on-the-job training is valuable, but they also expressed a desire for more programs to develop and formalize occupational training.

The report identifies Maine’s community colleges and career technical education centers as well-prepared to create learning opportunities. Specifically recommended is the creation of three vocational hubs across the state: Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, the Mid-Coast School of Technology in Rockland, and Washington County Community College in Calais.

“SMCC is well-positioned with our oceanfront location, a highly regarded marine science degree program and instructors who are experienced in aquaculture and business,” said SMCC President Joe Cassidy. “We look forward to working with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and people in the aquaculture industry to determine how we can best support this growing Maine industry.”

Among the other recommendations are a Maine Department of Labor-approved aquaculture apprenticeship program, the development of new occupational standards, and marketing support to promote the new learning opportunities.

For more on the project, including both the full Maine Aquaculture Workforce Development Strategy report and a summary, click here.



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