Nobody Cares About the Port (Or Do They?)

On the plane to DC last week, I was reading a fascinating article in the New York Times about how technology is reducing the need for longshoreman at the Ports of New York & New Jersey – for better and for worse (better because of efficiency, worse because of loss of family wage jobs). I could go on and on about how this story reflects a global trend in all industries, where automation is killing jobs and globalization is getting blamed for it…in fact, comedian Drew Carey even did a video on this topic!

But what really caught my attention was a story about New York’s lack of attention to its ports.

One of the things heard around the port is that people there, particularly powerful people, believe that they are working in obscurity. New York is — and has always been — a port town, they say, but few people think of it that way. One former terminal executive recalled seeing an advertisement for a recent public event celebrating the city’s waterfront. Ferryboats and kayakers were mentioned, but not the port.

The omission was shocking, not least because the port is gigantic: the largest on the East Coast, the third-largest in the country, an industrial leviathan that supports nearly 280,000 jobs, including truckers, security guards and maintenance workers. (In comparison, Wall Street supports about 160,000.)

I bring this up because I think that we’re often guilty of the exact same thing here in Washington, particularly in Seattle. Some of us know just how vital the Port of Seattle is to our success as a city: not only is it the source of tens of thousands of direct and indirect jobs, but it is also a vital resource for our companies that depend on access to a global supply chain. Put another way, without the Port of Seattle, there would be a lot of companies that would be forced to relocate.

Yet, most of us don’t fully appreciate the impact of our ports, nor do we support the kinds of investments, policies and efforts necessary to ensure that our ports can continue to be competitive and successful. I’m not just talking about holding our own against competition from British Columbia and the Panama Canal, but actually growing and taking advantage of new opportunities to increase business and grow port-related jobs. The Port of Seattle’s Century Agenda has ambitious plans for growth, as do other ports throughout our state. But, to achieve those goals, they’ll need broad community support from business, government and labor stakeholders – coming together to identify strategic opportunities for collaborative action.

Is there the will for someone to take the lead on such an effort? Time will tell. But the potential benefits are significant, and I think we all might be surprised at just how many people would be willing to sign on to such a coalition.

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