Since Kyle Murdock opened Sea Hag Seafood in 2012, he’s battled the same issue many Maine businesses face: He needs to attract and hold on to good, reliable workers.

“It’s tough finding people in the labor market, getting them into work, and getting them trained and maintaining them,” said Murdock, whose plant in Tenants Harbor employs about 75 people. “It’s a huge concern for us.”

Murdock is one of many lobster processors who have built plants or made plans to expand in recent years but who say it’s a challenge to find people to run the cookers, inspect meat for shells and cartilage, oversee shipping and receiving, and do a variety of other tasks.

“Dealing with access to a good, reliable, skilled workforce is an issue,” said Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association. “It’s one thing to get your natural resource product and it’s another thing to get it to market. It’s just the reality of the industry. A lot of people are required to make this work.”

The processors aren’t the only ones who have to work hard to find and retain workers, Tselikis said. Lobster-related businesses are struggling to find workers to fill jobs at the wharves, the tank rooms, storage trucking, shipping and packaging.

“Having good workers is a big deal,” she said. “When you have something that goes awry and someone doesn’t show up for work, everything is connected.”

Since 2010, when a change in Maine law expanded the types of products these plants can process, the number of companies that hold lobster processing licenses in Maine has more than doubled to 13, with firms such as Sea Hag, Maine Fair Trade Lobster, Cape Seafood, and Shucks Maine Lobster opening plants or announcing expansion plans. The processors are hoping to add value to Maine’s $365 million lobster harvest, and get a share of the processing jobs and revenue that are now going to Canada. Though Maine fishermen catch 90 percent of the lobsters in the United States, about 46 percent of the lobsters caught in the U.S. in 2012 went to Canada for processing, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

To reap that economic opportunity, the lobster processors must find a way to overcome the lack of workers.

Industry jobs often pay more than minimum wage – area processors report paying anywhere from $10 to $14 an hour. But the work isn’t for everyone. The plant floors can be cold and wet. Workers must be constantly on their feet and amenable to a work schedule that can be erratic at some plants – six days one week if lobster landings boom, one day the next if bad weather disrupts landings. Most of the jobs are seasonal, lasting only eight months of the year.

Training new employees requires a huge investment of time and money. Some say it can take about six weeks of training before a worker is fully productive. More than 700 people work in Maine’s lobster processing plants during the height of the season. Building a strong lobster industry is critical to creating a self-sufficient economy for the state, especially after the significant job losses this year in Maine’s paper industry, said John Dorrer, former director of the Maine Center for Workforce Research and Information.

“You’re pulling lobster out of Maine waters by Maine lobstermen who want to deliver this as close to the market as they can,” said Dorrer, who is now program director for the Boston-based Jobs for the Future. “Given what’s happened with the paper industry, Maine just can’t let these things go away and not put up a fight. It’s a lot of value missed.”

Processing could significantly improve Maine’s gross state product – the value of goods and services made in the state – and could pave the way for more spinoff industries that create more long-term employment opportunities, he added.

“You could grow a part of the Maine economy where it has a natural resource endowment, which is an advantage over a lot of other places,” Dorrer said. “Why would we want to export that to Canada at a significant loss?”

The lobster processors are making major investments to address the labor issue. Shucks Maine Lobster is spending $3 million on renovations and equipment for a new plant in the Portland Ocean Terminal on the Maine State Pier. When the facility opens in May, Shucks will move 50 jobs from its Richmond location and add 30 new positions. One of the reasons for the expansion, said owner John Hathaway, is to be closer to the population centers and a larger labor pool.

“Our hope is that there is more availability of qualified workers, especially at the midmanagement level,” he said. But he stressed that all the other smaller moves they’ve made – like offering merit-based bonuses, paying above-average wages, feeding workers, and even celebrating their birthdays – are just as important.

“We believe retention is about respect,” Hathaway said. “We respect their effort and dedication and try to reward them accordingly.”

PROCESSORS COPE WITH SHORTAGE

Some 125 people now work at Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine processing plant in Rockland. The company hopes to hire 15 to 20 more workers.

Bean echoes other big processors when she talks about some of the basic measures her company has taken to attract and recruit workers: “(We offer) good hourly pay that is consistently paid without fail, good training and follow-up, and thankfulness and recognition of good work, and maintaining good morale among workers,” Bean said.

The company offers piecework in some areas of the plant, under which an employee is paid a certain amount per unit produced, rather than on an hourly basis. That enables fast and accurate workers to earn the equivalent of up to $25 per hour.

Bean has expanded and diversified production capacity to create a year-round processing cycle, which would allow workers to make money most of the year, not just during lobster season.

A few years after the plant started processing lobster, Bean spent several hundred thousand dollars adding machinery to enable workers to process Jonah crab, which is generally processed in the spring, before the summer and fall lobster processing months. When Maine shrimp is fished in winter, workers also process that species to remove the shells and send it out either cooked or uncooked.

“This allows us to hold on to as many jobs as possible from the employee talent we’ve attracted,” Bean said.

Last spring, Bean partnered with the Group Home Foundation, a Belfast-based nonprofit that assists adults diagnosed with cognitive, intellectual or developmental disabilities, to put people with the company’s Center for Enterprise Solutions to work at Bean’s plant. Four people have gone to work at the plant through the program.

Salvatore Garazzo, executive director of the foundation, hopes that number will grow.

“The employment setting acts as its own independent social enterprise program,” he said. “Some of the people they are working with have intellectual disabilities and need extra time to learn the work. Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine cares about the individuals sent to them through our employment services program.”

To build a workforce at Sea Hag Seafood, Murdock has partnered with a work-release program at the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren.

On a typical day at the plant, about two-thirds of the 75 jobs are done by workers from the program, each of whom has less than two years remaining on his sentence being served in the minimum-security prison. In October 2013, those efforts earned Murdock an award from the Hitachi Foundation that came with a $40,000 grant.

While this strategy has helped Murdock fill positions, it’s been a struggle to retain those workers for the long term. Often, if they are from away, they leave the area after they complete their sentences, “so we have to replace them on a fairly consistent basis,” he said.

Location is also an issue. The plant in Tenants Harbor is about 90 minutes from Portland. Murdock is considering building and renting housing for his workers, but that would create a whole new set of expenses and issues. In fact, child care and transportation tend to be the most common obstacles keeping workers from reporting for duty. Murdock has started a transportation service to pick up workers in Rockland. But it has been difficult to get all the workers in the same place at the same time to be picked up.

“It’s tough to get a critical mass of people together to justify the expense of the program,” Murdock said.

Murdock has tried other things to solve his workforce challenge, such as return bonuses. Each person who returns for a second season gets a raise of 25 cents an hour. He also has posted ads on Craigslist and Maine Job Bank, discussed attending open houses and career fairs and surveyed employees to find out what they want.

He’s also hoping to diversify by processing more Jonah crab and reprocessing lobster to extend the work season.

“We’re trying to figure out how to recruit more workers and retain the ones we have,” he said. “The retraining expenses are enormous for the turnover that we have. How do you come up with a solution? I don’t know yet.”

OUTSOURCING THE LABOR

Like any businessmen with a startup, Bryan and Luke Holden were trying to be as thrifty as possible when they launched their lobster processing venture, Cape Seafood LLC, to supply Luke’s Lobster, their thriving chain of restaurants.

Early last year, as they were ramping up production at their 16,000-square-foot facility in Saco, they did much of the painting and carpentry themselves; when the plumbing or refrigeration equipment went on the fritz, they got out their toolboxes and fixed it.

They also handled all the hiring, which turned out to require much more time and effort than they thought.

Because of the seasonal nature of the business, once they found the right people, W-4s, I-9s and piles of other paperwork had to be completed.

What’s more, workers had to be trained not just how to safely operate equipment and work within OSHA regulations, but also to comply with other federal regulations related to things like hand-washing, wearing the appropriate garb in a food area, cross-contamination, and important temperature thresholds for cooking and safely storing the lobster products. Workers needed to observe the work for a few days, then get on-the-job training. With those delays, Cape Seafood ramped up much more slowly than the Holdens wanted, processing 4,500 pounds of lobster a day the first week, then 9,000 the following week, then 13,500 the week after that.

“At the beginning, 4,500 pounds would completely stress us out,” Luke Holden said. “By November, 36,000 pounds a day was manageable.”

In 2014, while ramping up for its second season, Cape Seafood enlisted CoWorx Staffing Services to handle recruiting, hiring and training. CoWorx served as the employer and handled the paperwork, earning a fee on every labor hour generated.

CoWorx “spent time getting to know our business, so they could speak articulately about who we are and what we do to attract the right associate,” Holden said.

Bringing in a skilled temp agency to find qualified workers, conduct interviews and handle all the paperwork had a dramatic impact on the company. Cape Seafood was able to process 25,000 pounds of lobster a day when re-gearing up for the (2014) summer lobster season. Being able to ramp up so quickly will be critical as Luke Holden looks to expand his restaurant business.

“It was a better strategy,” Holden said. “It really enabled us to go from slow to extremely busy in a couple of weeks, rather than months. If you have the resources, paying for someone’s help that has a specific expertise in a specific need of the business, whatever that may be, is worth it in the end.”

PROVIDING BETTER BENEFITS

Last year, Maine Fair Trade Lobster, a partnership between East Coast Seafood and Garbo Lobster, opened a 100,000-square-foot plant at a site in Prospect Harbor that used to house the nation’s last sardine cannery. During the peak of the season, it has nearly 200 positions.

Roughly half the staff – some 105 workers – returned for a second season in 2014, said Anna-Marie Carver, personnel manager for the plant.

The company offers bonuses for perfect attendance and referrals for other workers who are hired for full-time positions. After 90 days, all workers are eligible for medical and dental benefits and paid holidays.

“We try to bring that concept of fairness to the employees,” Carver said.

They’ve also tried to tackle the transportation issue. Earlier this year, Maine Fair Trade got a grant from the Washington Hancock Community Agency to provide vans and small buses to bring workers from Washington and Hancock counties.

The company provides vans that pick up workers from Ellsworth to Columbia, about 40 minutes away from the plant.

“That has filled a gap for us, and provided a labor pool for us that we seem to lack in the immediate area for seasonal work,” Carver said. “We’ve been able to employ people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to come work for us because they lacked reliable transportation.”

The company has tried to keep shifts steady and consistent enough to give most workers at least five days a week of work, so that if they’re done early on the weekday or aren’t called in, they have a chance to make it up over the weekend. The company also is reaching out to a part of the workforce that is steadily growing: older workers.

The median age of the workforce is the mid-30s, Carver said. Maine Fair Trade hired many of the 140 people who worked at the Prospect Harbor plant when it was owned by Bumble Bee, which operated the plant until 2010.

“We’ve tried to employ as many of those people who wanted to and were able to come back and work for us,” Carver said.

Recruiting older workers by offering part-time shifts and other benefits to those who want to supplement their Social Security income could be a key to getting a more stable and reliable workforce, according to Dorrer, the Jobs for the Future program director.

“The one thing about older workers is that there’s a growing supply of them,” he said.

Jennifer Van Allen can be contacted at 791-6313 or at:

[email protected]