The OAT experience: Graduation 5.0

November 12, 2013


About six years ago, a representative for a generous (anonymous) donor in the Chesapeake Bay area visited ABC to see what contributions we were making to the Bay’s welfare.  About that time, the vital industry we have now was incipient, and I made the case, on behalf of ABC, that we were trying to enable oyster aquaculture.  It was a propitious time for this visit because we had just come off of two years of severe budget cuts that threatened to reduce our technical staff.  The donors offered support that, ultimately, helped us remain whole and continue our work unabated.

The donors offered another line of support as well, support for a new program we had been conceptualizing for a number of years, called the Oyster Aquaculture Training program.  The origin of the idea was somewhat selfishly rooted.  During the early years, as the industry grew, I was losing experienced people to new and growing companies.  The way to stop the bleeding so to speak was to provide a continuous supply of newly minted aquaculture technicians, leaving my professionals to, well, remain at ABC.  However, the rub was that to provide a truly meaningful experience and provide thorough training, we would need a participant to reside for a significant period of time.  I originally thought this would be about a year.  We pitched the idea to the donors and they liked it; they agreed to fund the first year – two trainees for a year.  After further consideration, however, we decided that hosting four trainees for half a year was probably twice as effective.  A half year would encompass early spawning season through early Fall when we deploy seed.  And so, OAT was born with the first ‘year class’ in 2009.

This year, we graduated our fifth class, graduation 5.0.  In all, 22 OATs have been sown.  Most are employed in aquaculture, ranging from positions at Cherrystone to Rappahannock River Oysters to Shores and Ruark to Ward Oyster Company to Coast Oyster Company (Quilcene, WA).  While it was initially our intention to stock, so to speak, the roles of local industry, we found that the applicants each year have become increasingly far ranging.  Next year, there are signs that there may be some international applicants.

It might be time to think about the intention of the OAT program:  should it be wide open or restricted to trying to provide a trained workforce locally?  Frankly, I am torn.  I am torn because of the unanticipated effect that the OAT program has had on the ABC staff.  The hallmark of the OAT training is immersion, hands-on, person-to-person tutorial, deep understanding of the principles of oyster culture.  Immersion, hands-on, person-to-person means that trainees interact with all of the ABC employees, all the time.  In effect, then, everyone at ABC is a teacher, colleague, and sometimes mentor.  This exercise in sharing our activities with willing learners has had a profound effect on the morale of ABCites – they love it.  Now, each year, as the applicant pool begins to trickle in at the beginning of the calendar year, there is a palpable anticipation.  Who is applying?  What is their background?  What kind of training do they need and what specialization would they like to learn about?  Where are they from?

The arrival of OAT trainees is Christmas in April.  What is in these packages under the wrapping of their application?  How good of a worker are they?  Do they have the right stuff?

Let’s be clear.  This is a quid pro quo program.  While we provide training, we also get seasonal assistance in the busiest time of the year.  As a result, we no longer hire summer technicians.  And the funding is also sufficiently ge
nerous to enable us to place OAT trainees in what we call externships – stints, from a couple of days to a week, at willing oyster culture businesses.  These businesses are our silent partners in the OAT program, and highly influential in shaping the perspective of impressionable trainees.  A couple of years, we were able to send OATs as far as Washington State (and actually, one remained and works there now).

So back to the question, should we restrict the bounds of the OAT program to serve the provincial needs of Virginia?  Of the Chesapeake?  Of the East Coast?  Of the United States?  Maybe you have some thoughts on the matter.  In the meantime, we are enjoying a program that turned out to be more than the sum of its parts.