By Tiffany Woods
CORVALLIS, Ore. – A survey of professionals in jobs related to Extension and aquaculture at universities and two federal agencies found that over half plan to retire in the next 10 years. The finding comes as the U.S. government ramps up its funding for research on farming fish, shellfish and seaweed.
Extension is a university-based, nationwide program that provides research-based information, educational opportunities, and technical expertise to help people, communities and businesses solve problems and be successful. Its aquaculture experts – including those with the national Sea Grant program – have expanded markets, trained workers on using new technologies, informed consumers about the nutritional benefits of seafood, and analyzed the economics of raising certain species.
The survey was conducted by faculty with Oregon Sea Grant, Kentucky State University (KSU) and the University of Idaho (U of I). It was sent to about 160 people in the United States who attended the 2017 National Aquaculture Extension Conference, are on an aquaculture Extension listserv with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), or are on a fisheries Extension listserv with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Sea Grant program.
“We pretty much covered the entire population of people in the U.S. who either work for Extension and have some aspect of aquaculture in their jobs or who hold administrative or other positions that support Extension staff involved with aquaculture,” said Sam Chan, a watershed Extension specialist with Oregon Sea Grant who helped conduct the survey.
Sixty-nine people responded to the survey. About two-thirds said they are Extension aquaculture specialists or educators. The remainder largely described themselves as “working in a related field.”
Sixty-six people responded when asked how much longer they plan to work in their current position before retiring. A third said one to five years, and 20% said six to 10 years. That means that over half of the respondents could retire in the next 10 years. If that were extrapolated to the estimated total workforce of aquaculture Extension professionals and related administrators, Chan said, it would mean that over 80 people are planning to retire in the next decade.
“Given the number of upcoming retirements, the window is becoming increasingly narrow for current aquaculture Extension specialists to recruit, train and mentor new professionals,” said Chan, who is a member of the National Aquaculture Extension Steering Committee and is based at Oregon State University.
To attract new hires, Chan said, respondents suggested that universities emphasize the variety of professional backgrounds that a career in aquaculture Extension can use. For example, he said, knowledge of law, engineering, food science, economics and environmental science can be useful to Extension specialists who work in aquaculture.
The survey asked people if they thought their institution or agency would refill their position with aquaculture Extension duties. Forty-four percent of the 68 respondents said yes and 46% said maybe.
The survey also asked about age. Fifteen percent of the 64 people who responded to that question said they were at least 67 years old. Forty-five percent were 51 to 66 years old, and 34% were 36 to 50 years old. About a quarter of the 64 respondents were women, with a majority of the women between 36 and 50 years old.
Sixty-seven people responded when asked how long they have worked in aquaculture Extension. Nearly half said they have worked in such a role for 16 to 31 or more years. Nearly 30% said no more than five years.
The survey comes at a time when the federal government is working to grow the U.S. aquaculture industry by funding research and trainings. In October 2017, NOAA said it would award $9.3 million to 32 projects to support U.S. aquaculture. The next year, NOAA announced 22 additional grants totaling $11 million, also to advance U.S. aquaculture.
“Growth in the domestic aquaculture industry holds great promise to create jobs and reduce our dependence on seafood imports,” Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said at the time of the 2018 announcement.
Forrest Wynne and Gary Fornshell, aquaculture Extension specialists at KSU and the U of I, respectively, helped conduct the survey.