"Port staff must possess specialist expertise"

“Port staff must possess specialist expertise"

The port is the backbone of the national economy in Germany, said Sönke Fock, Chief Executive of the Hamburg Employment Agency.

POHM: Sönke Fock, down the years the working world in the Port of Hamburg has greatly changed. Boiler beaters belong to the distant past. Quartermasters nowadays are cutting-edge logistics specialists. Can you describe why jobs in the port have changed?

Sönke Fock: Port jobs are subject to just the same change as the working world generally. Some tremendous trends have not bypassed the port. These include globalization of freight transport, standardization through container services, technological advance, and automation. We may still conjure up day labourers and men doing heavy work on the edge of quays. Such jobs have undergone rapid change. Progress towards modernity has simply and blatantly not evaded the port.

You have just cited standardization, technological progress and automation. Which special considerations apply to today’s port jobs?

Since globalization has struck home so powerfully, it is naturally essential that ports should maintain their international competitiveness. The subject of costs largely determines which ones can keep pace. Productivity is also involved, and increasingly, qualified staff who should possess ample expertise. True, a large number of unskilled and semi-skilled workers survive, but the proportion of these has fallen distinctly over the years. The trend is clearly towards specialists and experts with IT competence.

Which occupations are meanwhile in special demand in the ports?

These are the ones also frequently found away from ports. Programmers, software developers, IT specialists, electrical engineers and project managers are sought. In other words, staff with qualifications without any port background whatever. Something special to the port, however, is its 24/7 operation. Shift work there demands entirely different flexibility, along with staff deployment to meet customers’ needs.

Does that make staff easier to find?

I consider that this works both ways. On the one hand, the working hours do not appeal to everybody, or can even deter some people. On the other, remuneration is excellent, particularly for unskilled/ semi-skilled workers. Nights shifts or holiday working may be disadvantageous for some, but for others can certainly be a draw thanks to the generous pay and leisure time. The port will also always be associated with a certain openness to the world and internationality. Very many people are proud to be employed in one of the world’s most important ports. The special character of the workplace makes the port attractive.

Does that have consequences for school and university students, i.e., the coming generation?

Not necessarily. In general, I feel that young people lack an overview of the multitude of occupations and professions requiring training. A strong image persists in their minds, even more in those of their parents, of the port as it used to be. Then there are also some younger people who feel involved because their families have worked in the port for generations. That trend may be weakening, but can still apply. It is now up to companies, schools and also careers advisers, to inform young people about the different logistics sector jobs requiring training, such as port skipper, mechatronics or electronics specialist, design mechanic, or digitalization management professional. They need to convey to them that the port has a future as the backbone of Germany’s national economy.

Which soft skills do young people need to offer nowadays?

The port, especially, calls for a high degree of ability to work in a team. Even if drivers in their cabins on van carriers may initially seem to be out on their own, virtuoso soloists are not required there. The whole consists of a highly intricate apparatus, needing to provide rapid and skilled loading and unloading, and to achieve cargo transfer from vessels to rail and truck transport with no bottlenecks. Punctuality is enormously important. Internationalization of the business naturally also demands an ability to interact well with the relevant IT processes.

How is the current situation on the labour market in the port?

Employment in the port is largely determined by the ups and downs of the economic situation generally. In other words, if business with China is going particularly well, then supply and demand for labour are higher. China, namely, remains one of the Port of Hamburg’s most important partner countries. That has been very apparent during the pandemic. Such occurrences are reflected directly as changes in world trade, I will go further into that, and this differentiates the employment situation in the port from the one in other sectors.

The trend is
clearly towards
specialists and
experts with
IT competence.

Sönke Fock,
Chief Executive
Hamburg Employment Agency

Could you give a figure for the number of people employed in the port?

Here we rely on the figures from the UVHH – Port of Hamburg Employers’ Association for workers liable to pay social security last year. These indicate around 47,000 for the inner port, with the figure raised fourfold for the Metropolitan Region to more than 124,000 jobs. The direct impact on employment in the whole of Germany is far greater still, with the Port of Hamburg standing for 600,000 jobs.

Many industries report a shortage of skilled staff, is that true of the Port of Hamburg too?

Yes, definitely. There’s a permanent requirement. That’s traditionally a matter of fluctuation, but also of economic variations. Take the logistics sector, where we see forwarders looking for drivers. Yet they are sought everywhere, so the port is in competition with numerous other concerns.

How can the situation be improved?

The most effective remedy is to train company staff. Also significant is the extent to which simple tasks can be automated. At Burchardkai, for instance, the van carriers mentioned are still operated by drivers, while in Altenwerder or at Tollerort everything functions automatically. In certain areas, people are no longer needed, but this causes worries about their continued employment. Staff require further training, and must be offered alternative jobs. People must be repeatedly subject to learning processes, companies need to involve their staff in the process of change and to dispel their anxieties. That does not make the process of transformation simple for port companies, but it is very clear to me that they have taken up the topic.

What can Hamburg Employment Agency do?

At the time of the pandemic, many port enterprises have realized how essential it is for us to guarantee employment by means of short-time working at companies. We are also underpinning companies where procedures are affected by digitalization by offering in-company or external training courses. For some time now, the law providing for opportunities for qualification has enabled us to appropriately fund such staff courses. We may already have done this in the past, but the task here is currently more urgent and relevant than ever. In the next seven years, demographic change will send over 67,000 specialist and supervisory staff in Hamburg companies into retirement. This will naturally affect the port too. In addition, we are encouraging companies to conduct training themselves, and for great numbers, also to register their training places with us. Only this will enable us to transparently present the port’s sheer variety and the host of training opportunities it offers for teenage applicants.

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