Business & Economy

As cargo traffic grows, the ports face a shortage of truckers

A lot of trucking companies in the ports are looking for drivers.
A lot of trucking companies in the ports are looking for drivers.
Brian Watt/KPCC

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Cargo traffic at the ports of Los Angeles And Long Beach will grow modestly this year and see much stronger growth in 2016, according to a new report released by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation (LAEDC).  

The LAEDC's International Trade Outlook says even with a labor dispute and growing congestion problems, the Ports of L.A. and Long Beach handled more than 15 million cargo containers in 2014. That was nearly 4 percent more than the year before and their third best year on record. The reports says that growth will slow to a modest half percent this year but speed up to 2.4 percent next year.

That growth comes as the ports face a shortage of truck drivers to haul the cargo to their next stop along the supply chain. On the roads around the port terminals, the truck shortage is evident.  Banners on business walls and placards on the sides of trucks read "Drivers Wanted."  

"There is a trucker shortage. A lot of that has to do with congestion," says Weston LaBar, the Executive Director of the Harbor Trucking Association, the trade group for what are known as "drayage" firms in the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland.  

Two main factors are causing the congestion: larger ships docking that take longer to unload and a shortage of chassis, which truck drivers use to attach the cargo containers to their rigs. Both situations make truck drivers wait longer at the terminals to pick up their loads.  Since most port truckers are paid by the load, rather than by the hour, and many must cover expenses related to their trucks, they're finding it hard to earn a good living.

To address the shortage, The Harbor Trucking Association and Long Beach City College started a 14-week training program for truck drivers in 2013.  It teaches driving and port procedures, gets drivers certified to access the ports, and includes a component on the entrepreneurship of owning a truck.  

"You’re getting more than just keys to a truck," LaBar told KPCC.  "You’re getting the opportunity to live the American dream and own your own company."  

The program has produced 100 graduates, and LaBar says three quarters of them were hired by drayage firms. With a new grant from the Wal-Mart Foundation and the nonprofit Jobs For the FUTURE, it plans to produce 300 more certified port truckers in the next two years. 

Robert Kleinhenz, the LAEDC's chief economist and a lead author of its International Trade Outlook said trucks and railroads are one of the reasons that the Southern California ports maintain a competitive edge. He suggested that laws of supply and demand could work out in future port truckers' favor. 

"As with shortages in other markets, a shortage of truckers is expected to drive up wages, and in turn, higher wages would lure more people into the profession," Kleinhenz told KPCC.