Accelerating development when timelines are short

Story originally published in BioTalent Canada’s Close-up on the bio-economy: Prairies

The time frame to train new recruits is short for agricultural contract research firm Ag-Quest Inc., With only one field season a year for recent hires to learn new skills, it can take years to develop into fully productive researchers. The company has responded by pairing summer students with senior staff who can bring them up to speed more quickly.

Q: What’s your focus at Ag-Quest?

DANA MAXWELL, PRESIDENT AND CEO: We’re an agricultural contract research organization (CRO). We do crop and herbicide and pesticide efficacy research as well as pesticide environmental fate studies, and we support agronomic development for new crop varieties in multiple locations throughout the Canadian Prairies.

Q: What are the big areas of opportunity for your business?

DM: We’ve seen good growth in our variety trial services and we expect that to increase. We’re also seeing more demand for herbicide-resistant weed assays. As long as weeds continue to evolve farmers will need herbicides.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge you face?

DM: It takes close to five years for a full-time researcher to reach their maximum capacity and they need a lot of coaching to get there. With only one growing season in a year, the development windows are short. Some researchers will work with just one crop; others work with 10 or more. There’s lots of agronomy to learn, different situations and growing zones to operate in and protocols to interpret. And it takes a long time for a researcher to build efficiencies into their work. An early-career researcher can’t manage a full workload without burning out; we want to build up our people to be productive.

 Q: How do you help people along that path?

DM: One way is by starting the development process sooner, with our summer students. Summer positions are basically four-month job interviews. Students who return have already built up their practical skills and can start to work more quickly than someone who’s entirely new to Ag-Quest or to field research. They also make excellent candidates to become Research Associates-in-training. We assign Research Associates-in-training responsibility for a small set of trials and pair them with more senior researchers who can mentor them. That lets them gain experience in managing their programs. We’ve had good success with that.

Q: How important are soft skills?

DM: Critical. We need people with good observational, teamwork and communications skills. A lot of our large projects involve large team events and it takes a lot of collaboration to complete them successfully. Self-organization and time management are important, too, because we’re balancing multiple trials and priorities. Each researcher needs to know exactly what must happen in a week and be able to organize their time and resources to make it happen.

Q: As you look to fill positions, is diversifying your workforce a specific goal?

DM: We welcome diversity. It’s not a specific goal but we do have a diverse workforce. We’ve hit the inflection point of having more women as research associates than men. And our permanent staff come from many different backgrounds. They bring a lot to the table.

 Q: Where do you find your talent?

DM: We recruit summer students through the universities and colleges. For our permanent staff, we advertise at universities, sometimes through the Agrology Institutes. It’s also helpful to hire through BioTalent Canada programs, which give access to workers with salary support and provide good candidates for research associates.

Company profile: Ag-Quest Inc.

Location: Minto, Manitoba
Employees: 39 full-time, 40 seasonal employees
Sub-sector: Agri-bio

Ag-Quest Inc. is an agricultural contract research organization that conducts agronomic research trials, herbicide resistance testing and other crop research in major growing zones and climactic regions across western Canada, serving both domestic and international agricultural clients.