For Maritime HR Pro Sonja Baron, It's Never Too Late to Change Career Ships

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Sonja Baron had her life planned out after graduating from Ohio State University with a degree in Chinese and international studies. The U.S. government had just recruited her, and with a security clearance in hand, she expected to soon start a long career traveling overseas as a translator.

Little did she envision that 20 years later, she would be recruiting workers to further the travel of others. Because of government spending cuts in the mid-1990s, Sonja didn't get the translator's job. In fact, she never made it to China or translated the language.

Instead, a career shift to retail management eventually led to her current position as an HR generalist for Foss Maritime. She tackles various HR duties for the Seattle-based maritime transportation and logistics services organization, including the recruitment of experienced workers and high school graduates. Her ship to China never left the dock, but she's nonetheless determined to find the right candidates who will help Foss' fleet grow.

"Whether it's on the boats, on our shipyards or in our office, we're looking for the best talent, people who are passionate about the maritime industry, passionate about being community-minded and passionate about their families," Sonja says.

Technology will play a role in finding those ideal candidates, particularly through a social media program that Sonja is strengthening. But while she believes technology helps cast a bigger net for ideal candidates, nothing will replace the evaluations she can make during a face-to-face conversation. She looks for a defining "spark" in people, a telltale sign of enthusiasm that illustrates a passion for work.

"I've interviewed a lot of people over my lifetime," she says. "I'll see that spark and know that's someone I want to work with. She adds: "Initially we used a temp agency to see if candidates worked out. I said, 'No, no. We have to talk to them.' "

Sonja apparently displayed that spark during her job interview with Foss in 2015. She took a circuitous route to get there: After Ohio State, she eventually moved west to Seattle, got married and held a few retail management positions, the last of which was for Barnes & Noble. She worked for the book retailer for eight years, with her district manager giving her project after project to keep her engaged in a "repetitious" job as an assistant manager.

Breaking through the monotony, Sonja got her first taste of human resources at Barnes & Noble. She hired, trained, coached and counseled, touching the whole lifecycle of employee management — and she enjoyed every minute of it. The experience prompted her to earn an HR certification at the University of Washington and start considering a career change.

She "pounced on the chance" to work at Foss, where she started as an assistant in HR, was promoted to HR coordinator and, in less than a year at the organization, assumed her current role as an HR generalist. She helps with financial matters, job training, organizing recruiting seminars, administering programs, writing policies and communicating policy changes to employees.

It's the human element of HR that drives Sonja's excitement for her job. Her favorite duty — and she doesn't consider it a duty at all — is talking to high school students and military personnel who are preparing to finish their service commitments. Veterans offer a deep skill set and tremendous poise, and have become valuable Foss employees, she says. And some teenagers don't realize the maritime industry can be a rewarding career field that doesn't require significant college tuition debt.

"I love talking to them about what they want to do down the road," Sonja says of teenagers. "I tell them that whatever profession they want pursue, it's eventually going to change, like it did for me. I tell them to never stop learning."

When she's not working, Sonja makes jewelry, reads, plays board games and shares her husband's love for movies and comic books. She also enjoys the culture of Seattle, where she can try just about any kind of restaurant and attend an opera performance and still be only a short drive away from mountains such as Rainer and, for vacation, Canada.

The Seattle area is obviously known as the home base for organizations such as Starbucks, Amazon and Microsoft, but Sonja is determined to add the 1,600-employee Foss Maritime to the conversation. To get there, she hopes to build on a partnership between marketing and recruiting because she believes the two departments aren't that dissimilar.

"They're really both about building the brand and attracting people," Sonja says. "I always believe that customers can be employees, and employees can be customers."

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