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Global shipping industry faces worker shortage

Employers are worried about whether there will be enough seafarers to operate ships, truck drivers to haul freight and administrators to run warehouses and distribution centers.

November 25, 2010|By Ronald D. White, Los Angeles Times

After an unwelcome reprieve caused by the global recession, employers in international trade again are growing concerned about whether there will be enough qualified candidates to fill the next generation of cargo and logistics jobs.

A spate of reports over the last two years has conjured up images of ships with too few seafarers to operate them, truck-ready freight with too few drivers to do the hauling and warehouse and distribution centers without enough qualified administrators to run them.

The worldwide shipping industry, which employs more than 1 million people to crew its technologically advanced vessels, is having trouble training enough seafarers, the International Maritime Organization said recently. It forecast a shortfall of 27,000 to 46,000 ships' officers in the near future.

The U.S. trucking industry will need to hire about 200,000 drivers this year and another 200,000 by the end of 2011 to keep up with expected growth as more and more drivers hang up their keys, according to the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals.

"This is a growth industry and we're facing a lot of retirements," said Tom Good, a director of sales and marketing for Matson Navigation Co., an Oakland shipping outfit with significant operations in Southern California. "Businesses are worried, and we have a serious need for an educated workforce who understands what we do."

It might seem odd to talk about an impending workforce shortage in what has been a mostly weak economic recovery. But shortages are looming in every sector of the maritime industry and international trade just as world economies creep back into the black after the worst global recession since World War II.

"A ship can be built in two years, but it takes a minimum of three years to properly train someone to work on it," said Bill Davis, senior vice president for Wells Fargo Insurance Services. "The gap continues to widen and the impact on cargo, equipment and lives has already reached unacceptable levels."

The squeeze will be felt strongly in Southern California, where the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach handle more than 40% of the nation's imported goods.

Greatwide Logistics Services is one of the companies already feeling the pinch. The trucking company hauls steel, groceries and apparel for clients throughout California but is struggling to maintain its roster of 5,000 drivers as older drivers retire.

"We now spend more money on finding, winning and keeping young drivers than we spend on marketing to our customers," said Dick Metzler, chief marketing officer of the Dallas firm. "This is the No. 1 issue facing our company right now."

To address the need, local schools are expanding programs despite budgetary constraints. Not only are these types of jobs expected to increase as the economy improves, but the salaries are also pretty good. Dockworkers, for instance, earn some of the highest blue-collar wages in the nation, between $22 and $35 an hour.

For several years Banning High School, named for Los Angeles port founder Phineas Banning, has operated four international trade academies that combine traditional core academic subjects with beginning business course work.

The academy concept has spread. Barstow High School's Mojave XP Global Logistics Academy opened in 2007, followed by Carson High School's Global Business Academy that same year. San Pedro High School's Earth Alert Academy was launched in 2009 and Gardena High School's Global Leadership Academy opened in September.

Southern California also is home to several highly regarded college and graduate-level programs focusing on logistics and maritime education, including the California Maritime Academy, the Center for International Trade and Transportation at Cal State Long Beach and the masters degree program in logistics and materials management at the University of San Diego.

"We don't have a workforce trained to respond to all of the various changing needs of the trade and transportation industry," said Tom O'Brien, director of research at the Center for International Trade and Transportation at Cal State Long Beach. The school recently added a program to train marine terminal operators in response to industry demand, he said.

Good of Matson Navigation sees a "serious need" for more young people trained in the various aspects of international trade.

"If you have a bright, educated kid who can tell the difference between a cargo container and a piece of Tupperware, there's going to be a job for him," Good quipped.

At Banning's academies, internships give the students a sampling of potential careers. Each academy has a board of business advisors from the maritime industry and related fields, and business partners also serve as mentors for the students.

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