The Containers are Stacked Against Us by Evan Gilman

In the July edition of the Royal News, I wrote briefly on the topic of shipping delays and some of the root causes. If you have ever experienced a shipping delay, however, you know just how widespread the effects of even a small delay can be.

I recently attended the Truckers’ Work Group meeting at the Port of Oakland, after being invited by one of our trucking partners, Henry Osaki of Mutual Express. The Truckers’ Work Group was founded in 2007 to aid communication at the Port of Oakland, and to inform all the involved parties about the current state of affairs at port. Wharfingers, Coast Guard, Customs officials, drayage truckers, Caltrans, and even the Oakland Police Department are in frequent attendance in order to provide information and get updates. In this way, communication between Port of Oakland officials and those responsible for the transportation of goods has been improved.

As people streamed in, bedecked in suits and safety vests alike, Ralph Reynoso, a Port Wharfinger at the Port of Oakland, called the meeting to order. One of the highlights of the meeting was the news that 400 dockworkers are being added to the work pool at the Port of Oakland. This is important news for truckers; there is currently a labor shortage at the Port, and many truckers are having trouble getting loads to and from the Port as a consequence. There are currently new hires undergoing training necessary for work on the docks; the last batch of new hires will start work in September. With any luck, the cargo delays should come to an end by August.

This is the optimistic view. The components of an operation as complex as a port are many and sundry.

My host Mr. Osaki detailed some of the issues facing truckers as we made our way to the Port of Oakland from Royal’s Emeryville office. He has spent many years in the business, and as a flock of handshakes greeted him at our destination, I saw the sort of respect he garners at the Port.

One large issue, for both the Port and truckers, is empty containers. The root cause of this issue is an imbalance of trade from China; more containers are received from China than are sent to China. Another factor is that larger ships are using the slow-steaming method (essentially conserving fuel by traveling more slowly, as noted in the previous months’ article), which ties up a greater proportion of containers in transit, creating the need for the manufacture of yet more containers. This is compounded by the fact that the manufacture of containers in China is relatively cheap, so there is not as much incentive to reposition containers back to exporting markets like China. The result is an accumulation of containers in places like the Port of Oakland.

At the Truckers Work Group meeting, the Port addressed the need to reposition empty containers, and Osaki reiterated the urgency when we visited his warehouse. Empty containers are beginning to overflow the port, and are making their way onto the streets of West Oakland, since there aren’t enough places to store these gigantic steel boxes. Truckers are allowed to bring in one empty container per day, as long as they are taking a container out as well. One solution the Port of Oakland is working on is an empty container bay in the Central Valley to create ease of access for those exporting agricultural products to overseas markets. This would also redirect some of the empty containers away from the port and create more space.

Another issue is insufficient numbers of chassis (the platforms that containers are loaded onto) that trucks need to pull their loads. Technically, most of these chassis are owned by the terminals, and are loaned out to trucking companies with the understanding that they will come back. Again, many of these chassis still have empty containers attached, with truckers hoping that they will be able to return the empty container as soon as possible. Currently, all the terminals at the Port of Oakland are experiencing an acute shortage of functional chassis. Though you can see many chassis stacked in the yards, the majority are labeled reserved or in need of repairs. Adding to the problem is the fact that the published amount of chassis at each terminal doesn’t represent the actual number of available chassis; only how many the particular terminal owns. The remainder are in transit, which can be confounding to truckers depending on there being a chassis available when they arrive to take a container.

Truly, these issues are only the tip of the iceberg. From the size of the ships bringing in the containers to the size of the trucking fleets, the scale of operations at a medium-sized port like the Port of Oakland is titanic. Addressing all the particulars may take more time and space than we have here, and to speak to the trucking side, there are yet more issues.

Trucks need to be dispatched as soon as possible to avoid keeping customers and drivers waiting. Drivers need more deliveries to pay their bills, and customers need their products as soon as possible, so it becomes the work of the dispatcher to make sure deliveries go smoothly.

Osaki explains, “Dispatching is an art, as one must remember and have a keen sense of how things flow. There is no book or class one can take to learn dispatching.” He adds, “There is no such thing in trucking as a perfect day. A perfect day is one where we made it to the next day. The only easy day was yesterday.”
In my next article, I will explore how truckers help us get coffee to our warehouse, and how our coffee gets to you.