Will Work With Fish

Staffing the fish department is about choosing employees who are knowledgeable and passionate about the aquatics industry.



Staffing a store is not as simple as hiring the best people a retailer can afford. Selecting personnel for the aquatics department is more complicated than that. First and foremost, a storeowner has to decide what role they will play in the aquatics department. If he or she is an expert, hiring a staff that will function as a back-up team may be the way to go. If, however, a storeowner doesn’t know much about running the “wet” end of a business, he or she needs to hire an expert. The less a retailer knows about the department, the more important it is to select a strong leader to head the aquatics team. 

Who will make a good worker? Well, it all depends on what a retailer is looking for. Make a list of the qualities the ideal employee would have and interview with those qualities in mind. Perhaps the most important trait is dependability. Or maybe flexibility is the most valuable characteristic an employee can possess. If it’s not dependability or flexibility, it may be salesmanship–some candidates may be talented enough to sell a 125-gallon tank setup to a customer who only came in to buy a betta and a bowl. 

In my opinion, the best reason to hire someone is because they are knowledgeable about fish and the aquatics industry as a whole. Another valuable trait is passion, but this can backfire if the employee is too intent on a personal agenda that interferes with store business. For example, a person actively pursuing any phase of the hobby may give that category too much attention, to the detriment of general overall sales. Just because an employee loves killifish doesn’t mean he can sell them in the store. Too much effort put into one thing, such as hard corals, discus, expensive koi, rare and exotic freshwater fish, aquascaping or even fancy equipment, will rarely reap a dividend in sales.

No One is Perfect
The truth is that every candidate will have some weakness, and no one is going to be perfect. The best candidate may request more per hour than the retailer is comfortable paying, which is a compromise a retailer must be willing to make. However, there are also negatives that a retailer should not overlook.

First and foremost, I would never hire someone who has not kept fish. If a candidate doesn’t understand what the hobby is all about, the pet shop is not the place to learn. There is always going to be a certain degree of on-the-job training, but retailers should try and keep it to a minimum. Try to find a person with broad general knowledge of tropicals, not a specialist who only has experience with one group of fish.

Ask a potential employee to identify some of the basic species of fish. They should be familiar with many tetras, barbs, rasboras, danios, rainbows, cichlids, livebearer strains, etc. Also, it will be beneficial if they know which fish typically come from captive breeding versus wild-caught sources. These two groups frequently have different water requirements. Another important bit of knowledge has to do with zoogeography–where in the world do the fish come from? For example, red-tailed catfish can come from South America or Asia, since there are two totally different species given this common name. The oriental variety is often referred to as the Asian red-tailed catfish. 

Finding a person who can differentiate Rift Lake cichlids, killifish, dwarf cichlids, Corydoras catfish, L-number armored catfish, etc. would be a bonus–but don’t expect miracles. Instead, ask prospective employees if they are willing (and able) to get wet and dirty when working on tank maintenance. Most fishkeepers will say “yes,” but the “pretenders” may find the prospect of grunt work to be beneath them. There is no room for elitism in a fish department–everyone must be willing to do almost any job that comes along.

Keep in mind that there is a certain amount of strength needed to move tanks, change water, lift boxes of fish, carry bags of gravel and help customers to their cars with purchases. So, a bit of muscle and stamina is necessary, and potential workers must understand this ahead of time. Job interviews should always address the physical aspect of the job. Fish room workers are likely to be on their feet for hours at a time. Make this clear from the start.

Retailers should hire “smart” if they can’t afford “knowledgeable.” A perfect example comes to mind that initially caused a good deal of consternation at a certain store. There was an older gentleman (around 40 years old) who had kept fish for years, but his knowledge was rather static, perhaps even stale. A young man (around 20 years old) showed up with only a small amount of practical experience but  was an eager learner, always asking questions and looking for answers. It only took a few months before the younger employee was actually of more value than the older one.

Keep in mind that fish knowledge does not necessarily indicate equipment or dry goods knowledge. It’s very important that employees know both aspects of the trade. While many people study fish, they rarely go out of their way to acquaint themselves with the multitude of products and the numerous companies that manufacture these items. Only people working in the industry bother to follow product development closely. Employees are more likely to be deficient in product knowledge than fish knowledge. 

When a retailer finally decides which candidate to hire, they must have total confidence in his or her talents. Retailers who try to micro-manage will alienate everyone, so they must be willing to delegate responsibility and accept decisions made by others if they prove successful. This will free the retailer up to manage the entire store–like a conductor working with an orchestra.  

Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for over 30 years as a retailer, live fish importer & wholesaler, & fish-hatchery manager.


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