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Longshore union races to fill skills gap

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Theo Greenly
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KUCB
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union is racing to train people for all sorts of equipment, because many of the top-skilled workers in Unalaska are retiring. The union represents the dock workers, truck drivers and crane operators who transport shipping containers on and off ships and trucks in the number one fishing port in the nation. The work requires a lot of specialized skills that take years — and even decades — to master.

Lila Roll has been with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union since 2001. It’s taken her years to climb the ladder to become a road driver, the highest qualification for drivers.

She says that qualification is the prerequisite to train to operate a top pick, a large piece of machinery designed to pick up and move large shipping containers.

Roll has spent the last two weeks learning how to operate the machine. And even though it’s taken her years to qualify for this training, it will still take a number of years to truly become proficient.

The union is racing to train people for all sorts of equipment, because many of the top-skilled workers are retiring.

Roll’s union represents nearly 30 thousand workers across the United States – about 140 of whom are in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor.

They are the dock workers, truck drivers and crane operators who transport shipping containers on and off ships and trucks in the number one fishing port in the nation. The work requires a lot of specialized skills that take years — and even decades — to master.

And there’s a problem: the union is about to lose many of those top-skilled workers.

Jeff Hancock is the Vice President of the Alaska Longshore Division, and is one of the trainers in the top pick class. He said he’s concerned about all of those retirements.

“We've got quite a number of people now who are in their 60s, and some that are even over the age of 70, who are still actively working and fully skilled, and will be retiring within the next year or year and a half, most likely,” Hancock said. “That really leaves a big skills and experience gap.”

Hancock has spent the past several weeks training this new team of top pick operators. But after two weeks of intensive training, he says only two of the four trainees are ready.

Many of the higher-level skills are even more difficult to fill.

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 some prerequisites, and may still be five years out for me, at which time I'll be almost retirement age,” he said.

Hancock says that while the union is doing everything they can to train workers, there will continue to be a skills gap.

“It’s going to take some years to get people to the level that we need them to be,” he said.

The people who weren’t cleared to operate a top pick will get to continue training.

And Hancock says that while Lila Roll is going to need a few more days of training before she can take top pick jobs, he’s sure that she’ll become a great top pick operator.

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

Jeff Hancock is the partner of KUCB's General Manager, Lauren Adams

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