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Not immune to labour shortfall

Tuesday, 04 June 2019 | 16:00

Skilled labour shortages are increasingly afflicting numerous industries around the world and ports are feeling the same heat as countless others. The consequences are already being felt in docks through lengthened cargo turnarounds, vessel berthing window congestion and delays to infrastructure development.

A senior executive from the Port of Corpus Christi (Texas) has gone on record to state that labour shortages have hampered efforts to develop beneficial local energy projects, such as petrochemical processing plants. The executive reportedly said there was sufficient natural gas supply in the state to warrant the building of up to three $10 billion steam crackers near the port to process ethane into ethylene, but lamented “we don’t have the workforce to do it”.

Meanwhile, experts have predicted that in British Columbia (Canada), 17,000 non-residential construction jobs could be needed over the next three years if all proposed major projects for the province – including expansions to its ports – are to progress on schedule.

Economic growth consequences

With the world entering its Fourth Industrial Revolution, Port of Rotterdam (Netherlands) social labour affairs manager Henk De Bruijn and social labour affairs advisor Berith Berflow explain that two factors have predominantly driven widespread skilled labour shortages: the explosion in economic growth after the global financial crisis and rapid change being seen in such areas as robotics, automation, electrification and digitalisation.

“Many companies in the Port of Rotterdam have a shortage of workers and a lot of vacancies,” they say. “The port needs a lot of technicians with a direct information and communications technology (ICT) profile with different educational levels now, but certainly in the future.” Last year, there were around 400 vacancies at container terminals in the Port of Rotterdam and about 1,000 vacancies for truck drivers. Some companies are also looking for mechanics and mechanical engineers. Further, the construction of Maasvlakte 2 will create many new jobs in the coming years and it is expected that by 2030, there will be a demand for up to 10,000 additional employees.

“The most recognisable direct consequence of not having enough people to do the work is companies not being able to grow as much as they want, because they need more time to do the work with less people,” the pair tell Port Strategy. “Ultimately, if this will be the case for too long it obviously will affect the economic growth overall.”

They note that “every few months” there appears to be a notable technological breakthrough causing significant disruption: “30 years ago that would be once every five years – and we are simply not really prepared for rapid changes.

“This leaves companies with the following question: what kind of person do I hire? The person I need now may not be suitable for next year and we want to hire for [the] long term. Companies and recruiters cannot foresee the future as they could in the past.”

Future uncertainty

In New Zealand, Ports of Auckland (PoAL) people, foresight and innovation general manager Diane Edwards says the major automation project due to be completed at her port’s container terminal in 2020 is contributing to “some shortfalls in stevedoring areas”.

“It has been most difficult to recruit stevedores when people know that the job may only be for a one to two-year period – the uncertainty around jobs means a number of staff have been looking elsewhere for work and this has meant that it is difficult to train enough new staff to replace those who are leaving,” says Ms Edwards. She adds that the strengthening economy in New Zealand has compounded the problem.

There are additional capacity challenges as a result of the automation project taking place on an already busy, operational site which PoAL naturally does not want to close down. “This impacts stevedoring operations as straddles have to travel further to pick up and drop off containers. Things are exacerbated when ships arrive off window at peak periods. The shortfall in stevedores means we may not be able to have all cranes operating, which restricts our ability to turnaround a ship as fast as we would like.”

Given those circumstances – and with the business also experiencing shortfalls in systems engineering, cyber security and ICT operational personnel – Ms Edwards says PoAL has adopted a more pragmatic recruitment approach. “In the past it has not always been preferable to recruit those who were only seeking a job for a short time, as the time needed to train them made it uneconomical. We have learnt to be flexible and, with the current shortage, we are open to filling roles with people seeking short-term work.”

Furthermore, Ms Edwards says PoAL is now seeking new employees who are “happy to learn the port business” and who potentially see their longer-term futures in other areas such as engineering or IT – both of which are noted to be growth areas in an automated environment.

“We need people who are not just interested in driving straddle carriers and cranes but who are adaptable to other work areas and possibilities. If they are open to changing roles as the port develops, we can offer them a varied and exciting future with us.

“We are also investing in our existing staff by providing training for other areas of the business … it is key to our retention strategy that existing staff are shown that as jobs reduce in one area, others are created.

“Port executives need to ensure that they understand that automation is not just an IT implementation – it is a complete business transformation that will fundamentally change the mix of skills needed to run a port.”

Human capital

Back in Rotterdam, Mr De Bruijn and Ms Berflow say the business is encouraging collaboration as a means of addressing employment shortfalls.

“We are trying to establish a culture of teamwork between government, companies in the port and education – because together we can cope with the lack of workers, trying to be ready for the future and make sure everyone in the region is included and can be helpful in some way.

“We think that public-private collaboration will be the key to the labour shortage problem. To tackle this problem, we need to work smarter, include everyone (the ones with limitations as well), we need more communication between educational institutes and companies, and companies need to learn from each other and share their knowledge on a few topics.”

In this vein, Rotterdam has joined with a handful of other ports around the world to initiate the Human Capital International Ports Agenda.

“The challenges of the energy transition and digitisation can only be met if we also focus on the social transition. By working together and sharing knowledge and experience in this area with other international port authorities in the Human Port Capital initiative, we are creating a new generation of port employees.”

Additionally, it has partnered businesses in the port, the Municipality of Rotterdam, Deltalinqs and the Shipping and Transport College in launching a continuous education programme.

“From cradle to quay, we get children, young people and adolescents interested in the port. We want young people to learn the right skills and not leave school without a diploma. Employees must develop throughout their lives, which is why [the] employers are committed to retraining and additional training,” they say.

“Through digitisation and the energy transition, the port and the work in the port are changing. To remain competitive in the future, it is important to ensure that staff are properly trained. Because the shortage on the labour market is getting bigger, we see this agreement as an important, concrete step.”


Skills development is essential to address the opportunities and challenges to “meet new demands of changing economies and new technologies in the context of globalisation”, states the International Labour Organization (ILO).

According to documentation on its Decent Work for Sustainable Development Resource Platform (DW4SD), the ILO’s work in this vein over recent years has primarily focused on:

• linking training to current labour market needs as well as anticipating and building competencies for the jobs of the future;
• building quality apprenticeship systems and incorporating core skills into training for young people, and expanding access to employment-related training in rural communities to improve livelihoods and reduce poverty; and
• equipping women and men to work in the formal economy.

The ILO states that skills development strategies should be high on the priority list of countries, “in all stages of development”, for at least the following:

• skills matching – “to better forecast and match the provision of skills, both in terms of relevance and quality, with labour market needs”;
• skills upgrading – “to adjust skills development programmes and institutions to technological developments and changes in labour markets so that workers and enterprises can move from shrinking, low-productivity economic sectors and professions to expanding, high-productivity sectors and occupations – such adaptation requires permanent and regular re-skilling, skills upgrading and lifelong learning for workers to maintain their employability and enterprises to remain competitive”; and
• skills for society – “to build up capabilities and knowledge systems within the economy and society which induce and maintain a sustainable process of economic and social development”.
Source: Port Strategy

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