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Maine's aquaculture industry to get a boost with new apprenticeship program

The Maine Department of Labor is developing a new apprenticeship program with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, made possible with a $500,000 federal grant.

AUGUSTA, Maine — When it comes to starting a new career, one of the most important steps is finding a way to get related experience. A program in Maine that has been in place for decades is designed to do that — and a federal grant is helping it expand to an industry that is growing rapidly.

On Monday, the Maine Department of Labor announced it's helping the Gulf of Maine Research Institute create an aquaculture apprenticeship program, designed to act as a workforce development tool. This project is made possible by a $500,000 federal grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

"We are constantly seeing apprenticeship moving into different occupations," said Jessica Picard, the communications manager for the Maine DOL. "It's really exciting how it's changing and innovating into different places."

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The Maine Apprenticeship Program through the Maine DOL has been happening since 1941 and now serves 1,150 apprentices through 317 participating businesses. The top industries taking part are construction, manufacturing, and health care. Picard said about 94% of apprentices stay with their employer after their program is over and they're fully trained. Apprenticeships are paid, allowing people to "earn as they learn".

"It's a win-win for everyone," Picard said. "Apprentices, they're earning wages, as they're learning a new skill; they're integrated into the workplace; they have a mentor as they're learning at their workplace. Employers, they have a program that can be in place for as long as they need it to really keep bringing in new people [and] teach them the skills that they want them to know."

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Picard said the aquaculture industry in Maine is continuing to grow. In 2016, there were about 28 aquaculture employers in Maine (registered as part of the unemployment insurance system). Now, there are about 40. Jonathan Labaree, chief community officer for GMRI, said industry leaders are looking to hire more people to help meet that expansion. He said specifically they're interested in finding people who want to make a living working on the water — and that's what this new apprenticeship program will be designed to do. 

The Maine DOL and GMRI are also working with Southern Maine Community College, the Maine Aquaculture Association, and Educate Maine on this program. The goal is to allow students to get experience on aquaculture farms, like those that grow oysters and salmon, etc., with courses that are affordable and only last a few weeks. That way, they can eventually get an entry-level job in aquaculture and then move up through the industry. 

"Aquaculture companies are really interested in investing. They've been really interested in this work and helping inform this work because they see the value — and they definitely want people who commit and stay in the industry because that's valuable for them," Labaree said.

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Labaree said along with the mission of retaining workers long-term, there's also a push to see people in all roles who have had experience on the water.

"A lot of these companies really value folks who have had that experience on the water, even if they're sitting behind a desk," Labaree said. "If you understand what's happening on the water and in the industry and with the products that they're trying to grow and create, that really gives you a leg up."

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Labaree said this grant is meant to last for about three years. After that, the program will reside with the Maine DOL, since GMRI is basically acting as the catalyst to get it up and running. Labaree said related short courses should be available at SMCC this spring semester, and he estimates the full apprenticeship program will take about a year to develop.

Anyone can become an apprentice, as long as they're at least 16 years old and interested in furthering their education both in the classroom and on the job. To learn more about the Maine Apprenticeship Program in general, click here.

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