Fishing skills

Union races for longshoremen to close the skills gap

Lila Roll has worked for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union since 2001. It took her years to work her way up to become a truck driver, the highest qualification for drivers.

She says the qualification is the prerequisite for training to operate a top pick, large machinery designed to pick up and move large shipping containers.

Roll has spent the past two weeks learning how to operate the machine. And even though it took her years to qualify for this training, it will take her many more years to become truly competent.

The union is rushing to train people for all kinds of equipment as many of the most skilled workers retire.

Roll’s union represents nearly 30,000 workers across the United States, including about 140 in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor.

It is the dockworkers, truckers and crane operators who transport shipping containers on and off ships and trucks in the nation’s premier fishing port. The job requires many specialized skills that take years, if not decades, to master.

And there is a problem: the union is about to lose many of these highly skilled workers.

Jeff Hancock is the vice president of the Alaska Longshore Division and one of the premier class trainers. He said he was concerned about all these retirements.

“We now have a number of people in their 60s, and some even over 70, who are still actively working and fully qualified, and will be retiring within a year or a year and a half, most likely” , Hancock said, “It really leaves a big gap in skills and experience.”

Hancock has spent the last few weeks training this new team of top-notch operators. But after two weeks of intensive training, he says only two of the four trainees are ready.

Many higher level skills are even harder to complete.

Hancock says that after 25 years in the industry, the only major skill he needs is how to operate a gantry crane.

“Gantry crane training is offered based on seniority and certain prerequisites, and can still take five years for me, by which time I will be almost of retirement age,” he said.

Hancock says that even if the union does all it can to train workers, there will continue to be a skills gap.

“It’s going to take a few years to get people to the level we need,” he said.

People who were not allowed to make a first choice will be able to continue training.

And Hancock says that although Lila Roll will need a few more days of training before she can take on top positions, he is sure she will become an excellent top operator.

“Oh, on more than one occasion I called her Badass Lila Roll,” he said.

Jeff Hancock is the partner of KUCB General Manager Lauren Adams