Panama Canal Expansion: Does the U.S. Workforce Exist to Accommodate It?

As the Panama Canal turns 101 years old in 2015, a major expansion will open it to ships up to 1,200 ft. long. Companies will save thousands of dollars per container compared to shipping them across the U.S. by rail.

Facilities are expanding to handle post-Panamax ships, but will they be able to find enough skilled workers?

As the Panama Canal turns 101 years old in 2015, a major expansion will open it to ships up to 1,200 ft. long. Companies will save thousands of dollars per container compared to shipping them across the U.S. by rail.

Ports from Miami to New York are racing to build facilities to attract the big ships. For now, only Baltimore and Norfolk, are equipped to handle the big ships. Florida is preparing now for the most critical need in the expanded ports: skilled engineers, managers, and workers. It has started building talent pipelines starting in middle school and high school.

About an hour west of JaxPort in Jacksonville is the Global Logistics Career Academy in Columbia High School. More than 100 students have chosen from tracks that focus on logistics and supply chain technology, information technology applications, global logistics operations, or global logistics management. A well-rounded curriculum includes purchasing procedures, inventory control systems, storage methods, use of material handling equipment, receiving and stock handling, and shipping. Related classes are now being offered in the district’s middle school.

Students practice hands-on skills in a working book distribution center and graduate ready to work, with certifications in lift truck driving. Touring facilities like JaxPort, Southeastern Toyota, US Cold Storage give them a good idea of what goes on outside of school — and gives the companies a look at future employees. The talent strategy also includes specialized tracks at local colleges to seamlessly pick up where the high school preparation leaves off, offering logistics and supply chain certifications and two-year degrees. Florida is now starting up similar academies to train the workforce needed by the port of Miami.

If New York, Savannah, and Charleston will be handling the big ships in 2015, they should be paying attention to Florida’s education innovations. Their competitiveness will depend on efficient and cost effective operations no matter what size ship comes in, and that depends on having the best people. They should be working closely with surrounding schools and colleges to develop a tailored curriculum, teacher training, and practice facilities.

But unless the leaders of expanding ports think big about developing new talent, they will find themselves struggling to find it.

Karen Wilhelm has worked in the manufacturing industry for 25 years, and blogs at Lean Reflections, which has been named as one of the top ten lean blogs on the web.

    February 13, 2014

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

    Get the latest.