Workforce shortage stalemating progress for Russian fisheries

Fishermen are in short supply in Russia now, which may hold up the country’s efforts to beat new catch records as well as delay the effects of government-initiated incentive programs aimed at renewing fleets and beefing-up seafood processing facilities. 

In this series, SeafoodSource investigates the factors contributing to what has become one of the primary obstacles of development for Russia’s seafood sector at large: a shortage of skilled labor. 

This initial installment of the two-part series will delve into the histories that have informed – and hindered – workforce development in Russia's fisheries sector. Part II will run on Friday, 19 July.  

A brief working history

Nicolas II of Russia, the lasting ruling emperor of the country – who is treated with perhaps too much idealism in Netflix’s new streaming series “The Last Czars” – made an impactful decision for his country’s fishing sector in 1913, when he ordered the establishment of a fishery faculty at the Moscow Agriculture Institute, in an effort to bring more skilled workers and managers to the industry.

Even the Bolsheviks – who took over Russia in 1917 after reportedly getting Nicolas II killed – were adamant in investing resources into fisheries education, establishing colleges and institutes throughout the Soviet Union in all major fishery basins.

It’s a legacy that is now governed by the Russian Federal Agency for Fisheries, which runs five high schools and a number of colleges. The agency is responsible for writing education programs and publishing textbooks for its institutions as well. Collectively, 37,500 students study across all of the agency’s establishments, with the education of more 12,000 of those students funded by the Russia’s federal budget; the other 25,000 students pay for their education themselves. 

In accordance to the fishery agency, in 2018, there were 3,360 first-year, state-funded students in high schools and 2,280 in colleges, completely filling the state’s quota. 

The Far Eastern State Technical Fishery University (FESTFU), the industry’s leading high school, announced that for its 2019 campaign so far, more than 2,000 applications have been submitted. The state-funded quota, however, is reserved for just 620 seats. 

Despite having a centralized industry education system in place and an excess of demand over supply of students eager to learn the trade, Russian fisheries cite the shortage of skilled and unskilled workforce as the main obstacle for their developments. 

Overall, the industry employs 190,000 workers and managers of all ranks and professions. Nearly 60 percent of them work in the Russian Far East, where around 75 percent of the national five million metric tons (MT) of seafood catch is harvested – it’s also where the workforce problem feels the most severe. 

Few want to sail and fish

According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Far Eastern Agency for Development of Human Resources (FEADHR) – a state-owned body designed to help the region’s economy with labor resources – 79 percent of Russian fisheries have complained about of lack of skilled workers. Electricians, mechanics, refrigerator mechanics, machinists, and captains of small-sized vessels were the primary personnel fisheries said they were hurting for, but they also noted a shortage of fish processing workers and navigators. 

Generally speaking, finding individuals who would like to work on the open sea and who are properly trained to do so was identified by the survey as the most difficult task for human resources managers serving Russian fisheries. For perspective, nearly 75 percent of vacancies in the sector – which are hard to fill – relate to candidates with relevant experience. 

Making matters worse in this arena are the state’s ambitious plans to boost the seafood industry’s output. The Federal Agency for Fisheries has embarked on a plan to get renewals for much of Russia’s fleet and to significantly increase the number of onshore factories with the help of investment quotas. FEADHR calculated that the number of vacancies in the region will go up by another 15 percent through 2021 as a result, making the current deficit more acute. 

The main reason behind the deficit of people coming into the industry can be attributed to an overall hiring crisis in Russia. The country’s unemployment rate was only 4.5 percent in May 2019, the Federal Agency for Statistics said. 

Technically talented workers can find high-yielding jobs easily, with salaries exceeding the country’s average several times, in the IT sector, for example, which has been suffering from a lack of coders. Meanwhile, groups with less experience and differing expertise can still find work in industries that don’t require putting their lives at risk or demand that they cope with cold winds and little comfort on frozen seas, as is expected of fishermen. As such, careers in the country’s seafood industry have been a hard sell when compared to less physically rigorous jobs available in Russia’s broader employment marketplace, according to FEADHR. 

“High demand for salesmen, drivers, etc. creates competition for fisheries regarding workforce,” said the FEADHR’s report.  

A huge problem exists on the education side, too. As Andrey Zaika, the chairman of the Pomorye Fisheries Union, said in an interview with the Pravda Severa newspaper, Russia’s modern education system is out of date, leaving graduates ill-equipped to face the realities onboard a fishing vessel or at a seafood production facility. 

“It’s necessary to change education programs, stop teaching future fishermen things which they will never need,” Zaika said, before noting that the trend of excessive specialization in education hasn’t been helpful either. 


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