How technology is reshaping the workforce in our ports and terminals

How technology is reshaping the workforce in our ports and terminals

What do you think of when you think of a port?

The image you call to mind is probably an able-bodied male worker hauling cargo or driving a truck, underscoring the labour-intensive and physically demanding nature of the role. In 2024, that might not necessarily be the case, as technology reshapes the way ports and terminals operate and opportunities emerge that challenge these stereotypes and pave the way for a new wave of inclusivity.

While technology is changing practices across the maritime industry, it also presents an opportunity to become more inclusive across all dimensions: gender, race, ethnicity and different levels of ability and disability.

This matters because the case for supporting diversity is economic as well as moral.

Companies with better gender and ethnic diversity are more likely to financially outperform, according to McKinsey research. It’s also a factor in workplace culture, with a majority of workers saying increasing diversity, equity and inclusion at work is a good thing and around half saying it’s extremely or very important to them to work somewhere that is accessible for people with physical disabilities.

Caption: Diversity is good for the bottom line
Source: McKinsey

This ladders up to the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG 5) which aims to achieve gender equality and is relevant to ports and terminals because it underscores the importance of empowering as many people as possible, eliminating discrimination, recognising unpaid work and promoting equal opportunities.

Caption: The importance of diversity
Source: Pew Research Center

Even so, the industry still has far to go to make cultural and environmental adjustments to enable full participation.

Women's participation in the port industry is low and relatively stagnant from year to year, according to the UN Review of Maritime Transport 2023. Women tend to be better represented in management and administrative roles, and are far less likely to be working in cargo handling port operations, the data shows.

For disabled individuals, a more flexible approach to capabilities, making reasonable adjustments to roles, and harnessing the power of technology could help to address issues.

Source: United Nations Review of Maritime Transport 2023.

Technology reshapes the conversation

So while the data shows much scope for improvement and a need for policy actions to promote diversity, another force is reshaping roles and responsibilities: innovation.

While these developments offer a chance to rethink traditional practices and become more transparent and efficient, there’s also a need to guard against risks like cybercrime and consider the sentiment and training needs of existing employees.

Digital platforms for logistics and operations management are streamlining processes and creating a demand for workers with expertise in technology, automation, data management and sustainability.

Automation is also a key force. As cranes get bigger, it’s becoming more practical and safer to use remote operators in ports like Jebel Ali, Pusan and Rotterdam Gateway than to have a driver high up in the air. Advanced Video Analytics (AVA) can be used in place of physical inspections of containers, and digital twins can gather data for better monitoring, planning and safety management within ports.

Digitalisation is coming to all parts of the industry. Digital exchange platforms are making it easier to transport cargo around the world, evident in DP World’s platform that digitalises most stages of cargo transportation.

Recruitment and retraining

The shift that’s already underway to incorporate technology and innovation will require employees that are more tech-savvy and can perform technology-enabled roles. These include systems engineers, analysts and programmers.

This, in turn, will require more diverse recruitment strategies.

Seeking workers from more diverse talent pools has the dual benefit of bringing individuals with tech backgrounds and other skills into ports, while also drawing employees from a wider range of groups.

Candidates from a broader range of locations and backgrounds bring fresh perspectives. But it’s not just about recruitment: current employees need to be upskilled and retrained to equip them with technological competencies as the industry evolves and thrives in a tech-driven world.

Removing barriers and fostering diversity

While the port industry in the Philippines is still undeniably male-dominated, the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) has institutionalised gender and development (GAD) and aligned with the UN's SDG 5, powered by direct funding.

Women made up half of PPA’s workforce, as of May 2021, with more than 1,000 female personnel including two department managers, five port managers and 56 division managers. Some women at the port work in roles like terminal supervisor, safety officer, engineer, terminal operations officer and industrial security officer.

For large organisations like DP World, global initiatives can provide support and mentorship to minorities and encourage them to seek opportunities in ports. DP World is actively involved, with programmes like #MentorHer. DP World Global is a signatory of the Women's Empowerment Principles (WEPs) and our Yarımca port in Turkey has a goal to increase the proportion of women working at the port to 20%.

Widening participation across the board

These initiatives are already bearing fruit. DP World Maputo hired its first female In-Transit Visibility (ITV) operators in June 2021, with more women joining later as the first female Rehabilitation Mechanical and the first female Assistant Operations Manager.

The representation of women in the management team at DP World Maputo increased to 35% in 2023, from 15%, and strategic partnerships were established with organisations in Mozambique to attract more women to the industry. In 2023, DP World Karachi, Pakistan, launched the GROW Graduate Trainee programme to create a future talent pipeline.

The future hinges on technology and diversity

The future for ports and terminals will be built on technology and a diverse workforce.

This is changing the shape and make-up of the workforce, and requires investment in recruitment and upskilling. Stakeholders across the industry need to work together to encourage a more diverse group of people to pursue careers in ports and terminals.

When industry leaders, policymakers, educators and businesses collaborate, we can create opportunities for a new wave of employees to use smart technologies in ports and terminals and pave the way for the workforce of the future.

Our vision is to offer meaningful, technology-led work for all, in effective, efficient and innovative ports and terminals around the world. Our industry has made a start, but we still have much to do.