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Port Report: Los Angeles port boss says workers must prep for future

Port on track to hit long-term growth goals; but executive director says workforce will need to improve to keep up with volumes.

The Port of Los Angeles saw May container volumes grow at their best year-to-date level since January, even as empty containers still account for most of the growth.

To keep volumes going, the seaport’s employees will face a changing workplace in the coming years as new technologies improve cargo fluidity, the port’s executive director said.

Los Angeles reported May container volumes of 828,661 twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU), a 7.8 percent increase from a year ago and the highest total volume since January.

Import volumes were also the strongest since January, reaching 427,789 TEU, about 5.5 percent higher than a year ago levels.

But it’s the empty cans that still make up most of the volume growth. Overall empties at Los Angeles were up 20 percent year-on-year at 233,515 TEU, also the highest level since January.

Source: Port of Los Angeles

The volume growth stands in contrast to its neighbor across the Cerritos Channel. The Port of Long Beach reported a 17 percent annual drop in total TEU handled to 573,624 for May. Import volumes saw the steepest decline falling 20 percent from a year earlier to 290,568 TEU.

Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka said he was “pleased with another record month of throughput and grateful to our supply chain stakeholders, terminal operators and unparalleled labor force for their performance.”

But it may be tougher to match that performance this year amid “heightened unpredictability” due to the U.S.-China trade war.

At a board meeting approving the port’s next budget, Seroka reiterated his forecast that Los Angeles container volumes will double in the next 15 years, representing roughly 5 percent annual growth through 2035.

The larger volumes will create more demand for labor. But Seroka said “we will also need other areas that will help our competitiveness.” To that end, he asked the port’s board to create a committee on the future of work at the Port of Los Angeles.

His request comes as one of the port’s largest marine terminals considers automating some steps in container handling.

Recognizing the uncertainty facing the 14,300 unionized workers at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Seroka said, “what this workforce sorely needs is a look to the future.”

“You may be talking about automation, you may be talking about digitization, artificial intelligence, or you may be talking about competitiveness,” Seroka told the board. “These workers need to know what’s going to happen next year, in five years, ten years or fifteen year. The industry has never given them that before.”

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Michael Angell, Bulk and Intermodal Editor

Michael Angell covers maritime, intermodal and related topics for FreightWaves. His interest in transportation stretches back several generations. One great-grandfather was a dray horseman along the New York waterfront and another was a railway engineer in Texas. More recently, Michael has written about the shipping industry for TradeWinds, energy markets for Oil Price Information Service, and general business topics for FactSet Mergerstat and Investor's Business Daily. When he is not stuck in the office, he enjoys tours of ports, terminals, and railyards.

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