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Soaring Port Traffic Delivers More Jobs

A boom in trade and cargo volume has turned the docks in L.A. and Long Beach into an employment engine.

July 19, 2004|Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writer

Like her father and grandfather before her, 30-year-old Emilei Noceti thought she would spend her career at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach as a longshoreman, lashing down cargo and driving utility trucks through the smell of diesel fumes.

There didn't seem much chance for advancement after the International Longshore and Warehouse Union ratified a contract in January 2003 that, because it gave shipping lines and terminal operators the right to use labor-saving technologies, was expected to eliminate hundreds of marine clerk positions, which can come with six-figure salaries.

But business at the ports has moved at such a furious pace that the union has gained 839 new members instead of losing the 600 or so it had feared it would. And the ranks of the marine clerks, who supervise the loading and unloading of ships, have, in fact, swelled.

Noceti became a clerk in November, giving her hope that one of the last upper-middle-income jobs that doesn't require a college degree will last long enough for her 16-year-old stepson to fulfill an unfinished dream.

"I would like him to go to college," said Noceti, who dropped out of the University of Washington at 19 and went to work at the ports to support her mother after her father, Nazario Crisostomo, died at the age of 49. "If he wants to work [at the ports] that's perfectly fine, but my plan for him is to have an education."

The odds could be in her favor.

At the port of Los Angeles, which used to trail its Long Beach neighbor in trade as recently as five years ago, traffic soared 90% from about 3.8 million 20-foot equivalent shipping containers in 1999 to about 7.2 million in 2003. This year, traffic is up 4% at Los Angeles and more than 14% at Long Beach.

"If the build-up continues, we may have to use additional 'contingency anchorages' located off Huntington Beach. We have also created 'drift boxes' that we can use to hold ships in, if necessary," Capt. M.H.K. "Manny" Aschemeyer, licensed master mariner and executive director of Marine Exchange of Southern California, said recently in his daily e-mail to port officials, referring to offshore locations where ships can wait until there is room for them to dock.

The explosion is largely attributed to an economic boom in China and its strong export trade. China also accounts for the lion's share of bulk shipments out of the ports. The Southern California docks also are major staging areas for military cargo bound for a buildup of U.S. forces in Guam.

"We're seeing double-digit growth in the volume of cargo. For the industry to be efficient, we have to find ways to increase the terminal velocity: Get cargo through the facility and into the rest of the infrastructure, to the rails, from the rails," said Jim McKenna, chief executive of the Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents West Coast shipping lines. "We have to improve that turn time -- that velocity -- just to stay with the curve."

That has turned the ports into an employment engine in what has otherwise been a largely jobless economic recovery.

Not only has the ILWU grown from 10,319 members to 11,158 since July 2002, the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. says that the ports added 25,000 trade-related jobs in the Los Angeles Customs District, bringing the total to about 450,000.

The boom in trade also is largely responsible for a hiring and rolling stock purchase binge by the Union Pacific Corp. and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. railroads, which have been overwhelmed by eastbound cargo traffic out of the twin ports.

"It's just getting busier and busier," said third-generation longshoreman Rob Lukin, 29, who spent a recent morning moving military cargo bound for Guam with a 35-ton heavy lift vehicle that looked like a forklift on steroids. "Down here, you're pretty much pumping hard your whole shift. This place keeps you hopping."

Virtually all of the increase in ILWU jobs over the last two years has come in Los Angeles and Long Beach, where the number of longshoremen, mechanics, marine clerks and foremen climbed 16% to 6,904 last month from 5,970 in June 2002.

Some union officials say the employment numbers are misleading, contending that there have been job gains only because it takes so many dockworkers to juggle all the containers that are stuck on the docks due to congestion on the roads and railroads. These officials also note that the technologies permitted by the labor contract haven't yet begun in earnest and warn that there could be job losses ahead.

But there is no denying that not only are there as many ships coming to port as in recent years, if not more, but the ships are much larger and require more crews and more time to load and unload. On any given day, roadways at the port are as packed as L.A. freeways in rush hour. Trucks line up in front of the giant loading cranes as soon as the last container is picked up and moved onto a ship.

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