Too many people in the state think that the Maine lobster industry is simply oilskin-clad lobstermen routinely hauling traps time after time after time, according to Curt Brown. A new class that began this spring hopes to dismantle that perception. Called “The Business of Maine Lobster,” the ten-week virtual class “will open people’s eyes to the career opportunities of the lobster industry,” said Brown, marine biologist with Ready Seafood in Portland and one of the class organizers.
An economic study conducted by Colby College professor Michael Donihue in 2018 found that the annual economic impact of the Maine lobster industry, not counting the lobstermen themselves, was $244 million and provided 1,306 jobs. Donihue’s research showed that the broader annual contribution to the Maine economy was nearly $1 billion and the industry supported 4,000 jobs. Those jobs occur in multiple fields, from transportation and finance to engineering and marketing. But still the image of lobstering as a solitary endeavor by a captain and sternman persists. “In parts of the state, no one understands the complexity of it,” Brown said.
To counter that perception “The Business of Maine Lobster” aims to give students an overview of critical aspects of the lobster supply chain and identify career pathways to employment in the industry. The initial concept for the class came from Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association, Betsy Lowe of Acadia Seafood in Sorrento, and Brown. It is offered through the Washington County Community College’s Workforce and Professional Development Program and the Machias Valley Center for Entrepreneurship and is facilitated by Denise Cilley, Entrepreneurship Program director at Sunrise County Economic Development Council and director of the Machias Valley Center for Entrepreneurship.
“The Business of Maine Lobster” began on April 22 and meets each Thursday evening for three hours. The class is free to all participants. “[As workforce training] it was important to be able to offer it for free,” Cilley explained. Funds were donated by Machias Savings Bank and the Maine Quality Center, part of the Maine Community College system’s workforce training.
Students can take the class for three college credits or choose to participate in as many individual sessions as they wish without credit. “We have 30 students right now. One-half are enrolled for college credit and the others can pick and choose sessions. The students are a mix, with the majority over 40,” Cilley said. “We even have people from New York who are planning to move here and work in the industry.” Several prison inmates are taking the class through the Department of Corrections transitions program as well.
Class participants cover a lot of ground, from the basic biology of a lobster to storage and inventory management, quality assurance, grading, distribution of live lobster, transportation and marketing. Different experts in the industry give presentations each week, plus students have weekly reading assignments. “We’ve put a lot of time and preparation into those three hours. Three hours seems like a lot of time but we’ve found each week that we could just keep on going,” Brown said.
Milly Martin, general manager of the Vinalhaven Fisherman’s Cooperative, thinks the class is “fantastic.”
“There’s always room to learn more about the industry,” she said. She found the anatomy of a lobster and its life cycle particularly interesting as well as the session on shipping and handling. “I knew a lot about that but we then got into temperature and pH. It made me think about trying to get the fishermen to add aeration to their tanks. You don’t want the lobster’s heart rate to go up,” she said.
Toward the final weeks of the class, students explore workforce opportunities with a panel of industry employers and complete a final project that addresses specific challenges the students have identified during the class. For example, most lobster-buying wharves store lobster crates in the water. To know how much lobster a business currently holds, someone must count the crates. Is there a technology that would allow that process to be automated?
“The most important thing to take away from the class is not just that there are job opportunities in the industry but that there are career opportunities,” Brown emphasized.
“You can build a successful career as part of a team and grow throughout your career. And you may never actually touch a lobster.” The many types of business related to lobstering allow those who have a college degree and those without to find work in the state and often in their own communities, Brown added. “If you are willing to work and willing to learn, you can have a good year-round job.”