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Dockworker Job Description, Career as a Dockworker, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training None

Salary Median—$9.67 per hour

Employment Outlook Poor

Definition and Nature of the Work

Dockworkers operate machines that lift and move cargo on and off ships. Working in teams called gangs, they sometimes have to lift pieces of cargo by hand. However, more than ninety percent of all cargo is transported in containers that fit on trucks or railroad cars. Dockworkers are also called longshoremen.

Stevedoring companies, which contract to load and unload ships, hire dock-workers. The companies are either independent businesses that provide a service or divisions of large shipping companies. Both the safety of the cargo and the safety of the workers are the responsibility of these operations.

Dockworkers have several different tasks. Checkers inspect the cargo containers, noting any damage or unlocked containers, and handle shipping and receiving documents. This information is keyed into computer databases, which allow shipments to be tracked efficiently. Winch operators run the cranelike machines that move cargo between the ships and the dock. The winches have huge pincers that grab loose cargo or the sling—a heavy-duty net—used to hold it. Special mechanisms allow the winches to lift containers easily and quickly. Other dockworkers secure the slings around cargo so it can be lifted. Gear repairers keep all the equipment in working order.

Once the ships' cargo has been unloaded, dock-workers hand it over to truck drivers at what is called "the point of rest." It then becomes the truckers' responsibility.

Education and Training Requirements

There are no educational requirements for the job, but it does require agility, physical strength, and endurance. Good eyesight and hearing are important. Workers must be able to follow orders and to think quickly. Experienced workers train beginners to handle dockworkers' hooks, use rope and cable riggings, and stack cargo and containers.

Dockworkers unload cargo from ships using machines as well as their hands. (Copyright © 2003, Kelly A. Quin. Reproduced by permission.)

Getting the Job

The procedure for becoming dockworkers varies according to port custom. Registration with the local union office or with privately owned stevedoring firms is the most common method. More than ninety-five percent of the nation's dockworkers are hired under union agreement. The International Longshoremen's Association is the major union, representing dockworkers at thirty-five ports.

In the Gulf Coast and Great Lakes areas, workers are hired for daily work at a shape-up, a meeting place where all those desiring work gather at a specified time. The hiring supervisors, representing various contracting companies, select as many gangs as they need for the day's jobs. The main disadvantage of this system is that workers must go to the dock every day and spend time waiting without any guarantee of work.

Most other areas use a hiring hall system. Dockworkers register their availability at the hall. Each stevedoring company calls the hiring hall the night before ships are to be loaded or unloaded. The hall notifies the gang bosses by telephone. The bosses contact the gang members, who meet the next morning at the job sites. In some places, this system has been replaced by a computerized telephone system.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Advancement is slow and limited to the range of jobs on the dock. Occasionally, dockworkers start their own stevedoring companies or become pier superintendents.

The employment outlook varies by region. The Great Lakes area, for example, needs trained workers because its stevedoring industry is expanding. In other places automated loading procedures have reduced job opportunities. Los Angeles/Long Beach, New Orleans, and New York, the nation's busiest ports, employ the most dockworkers. Most openings occur as experienced workers retire or leave the field.

Working Conditions

When union members are called to jobs, they must work quickly and for long hours until the ships are loaded or unloaded. The work can be hazardous and continues regardless of the weather.

Earnings and Benefits

Earnings vary by region. In 2004 the median wage of all dockworkers was $9.67 per hour. Experienced workers on the East Coast earned more than $30,000 per year. Workers on the West Coast earned even more.

Where to Go for More Information

International Longshoremen's Association, AFL-CIO, CLC
17 Battery Pl., Ste. 930
New York, NY 10004
(212) 425-1200

International Longshore and Warehouse Union, AFL-CIO
1188 Franklin St., 4th Fl.
San Francisco, CA 94109
(415) 775-0533

Longshoremen receive premium pay for overtime, holiday, and night work and for handling dangerous cargo such as explosives. Benefits include pensions, paid vacations, and medical insurance.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesTransportation & Logistics