Port Operative

The Job and What's Involved

Ports are places where ships carrying cargo and passengers to and from the UK load and unload. Larger ports tend to employ three types of port operatives:

- Stevedores
- Marine operatives
- Passenger operatives

Smaller ports and leisure ports often employ general port operatives who carry out a range of tasks that cover the three main job areas.

Stevedores load and unload cargo from ships. The cargo can include any goods imported to or exported from the UK, such as food, manufactured goods and raw materials. The work they do depends on the type of ship or cargo. Their tasks normally include:

  • Operating cranes and other equipment to transfer cargo off and on ships.
  • Operating forklift trucks, electric trolleys and large trucks to transport cargo within the port.
  • Driving unaccompanied vehicles on and off ships, such as cars, tractors, combine harvesters and army vehicles.
  • Transferring cargo manually into and out of freight containers.

Marine operatives work on harbour craft used within the port. These craft can include small powered work boats, safety boats, dredgers, specialist survey craft and high-speed launches used to transport people to vessels outside the harbour. Marine operatives' work depends on the type of craft, but can include:

  • Positioning and removing gangways.
  • Fuelling craft.
  • Tying or untying ships' ropes when arriving or leaving the port.
  • Manoeuvring buoys and markers into and out of the water.
  • Berthing larger vessels and, in some cases, operating lock gates.
  • Operating craft under supervision, including navigating, controlling the engines, and operating radar and communications equipment, such as radio.
  • Transporting passengers from a pier to a cruise ship or ferry; marine pilots to vessels awaiting entry to the harbour; and ships' crew to vessels berthed outside the harbour.

Passenger operatives help with the movement of passengers through the port. These passengers could be traveling on a number of different types of ship, including small river ferries, large seagoing passenger ferries and cruise ships. A passenger operative's work depends on the type of ship, but normally includes:

- Lifting passengers' baggage on and off baggage trailers
- Carrying baggage on or off the ship
- Helping passengers who have disabilities
- Positioning passenger barriers
- Directing vehicles

Passenger operatives are often the only staff that passengers using ports see. They answer queries, and provide updates on sailing and arrival times and information on local services such as taxis and hotels. They also guide passengers and their vehicles on and off the vessel, and may check passports and tickets.

Sometimes passenger operatives have to deal with drunkenness, aggression, illness, emergencies and other demanding situations.

Ports are open 24 hours a day, so port operatives may be required to work shifts, usually eight hours at a time over a seven-day period. This pattern means that they have different times off each week. They usually work shifts to cover mornings, afternoons, evenings, nights and weekends. At times they may need to be on call. Overtime is common. There may be opportunities for part-time work.

Port operatives work outside in all weathers. Many, particularly stevedores, spend time in ships' holds or cargo storage areas. These can be hot and cramped.

The job is physically demanding with lots of lifting, bending and working at heights. Some cargo may be dirty, smelly or dusty.

Port operatives may be required to wear a uniform and should be issued with appropriate safety equipment.

Starting salaries for port operatives may be between £11,000 and £12,000 a year. Experienced operatives or those with specific skills may earn between £16,000 and £25,000 a year.

Earnings may reach around £30,000 a year with skills bonuses and overtime payments.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

The UK ports industry is the largest in Europe with around 120 commercial ports handling millions of tonnes of cargo and passengers. These include major all-purpose ports, ferry ports, specialised container ports, and ports catering for specialised bulk traffic, such as coal or oil. There are also smaller ports catering for local traffic, and other ports specialising in particular sectors, such as fishing or leisure use, for example marinas.

There are around 500 employers of port staff in the UK, employing approximately 25,500 people. The largest numbers are located in the south-east and eastern regions of England.

Employers of port staff include:

- Ports
- Harbours
- Private terminals
- Stevedoring companies
- Specialist labour supply organisations

Job vacancies are advertised in local newspapers, Jobcentre Plus offices and employment agencies. Larger employers often advertise vacancies on their own websites. Contact details for ports throughout the UK can be found on the websites of the British Ports Association (BPA) and the UK Major Ports Group (UKMPG).

Education and Training

No formal qualifications are generally required. Most port operatives need to be able to drive. It helps to have experience of operating cranes, forklift trucks or heavy goods vehicles. It also helps to be able to swim and work at heights. In ports where ships sail to other countries, a second language is useful for passenger operatives.

Some passenger operatives begin at age 16 or 17 but, for health and safety reasons, stevedores and marine operatives are rarely employed until they are at least 18 years old. Applicants may have to pass a medical.

An Apprenticeship in port operations is available and is currently being revised to include the NVQ Level 2 in port operations and a relevant Technical Certificate at Level 2.

Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships provide structured training with an employer. As an apprentice you must be paid at least £95 per week; you may well be paid more. A recent survey found that the average wage for apprentices was £170 a week. Your pay will depend on the sector in which you work, your age, the area where you live and the stage at which you have arrived in the Apprenticeship.

Entry to Employment (e2e) can help to prepare those who are not yet ready for an Apprenticeship. In addition, Young Apprenticeships may be available for 14- to 16-year-olds. More information is available from a Connexions personal adviser or at www.apprenticeships.org.uk.

There are different arrangements for Apprenticeships in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

For further information visit My World of Work www.myworldofwork.co.uk/modernapprenticeships, Careers Wales www.careerswales.com; and for Northern Ireland contact www.careersserviceni.com.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Training varies depending on the job. New port operatives usually start with an introductory course. This includes all aspects of cargo handling, including safety, understanding signaling instructions, and operating forklift trucks. Most training is then on the job under the supervision of experienced operatives.

Marine operatives generally train in sea survival, fire fighting and first aid.

It is possible to work towards NVQ Level 2 in port operations. This includes pathways for:

- Stevedoring
- Marine operations
- Passenger operations
- General port operations
- Team leading

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A port operative should:

  • Be physically fit, to cope with strenuous lifting and carrying.
  • Be careful when handling goods that could be damaged.
  • Have awareness of hazards and health and safety regulations.
  • Be able to work under pressure.
  • Be organised and able to carry out a number of different tasks.
  • Work well as part of a team.
  • Be flexible in respect of the hours and type of work that may be required.
  • Be able to get on with all types of people (particularly in the case of passenger operatives).

Your Long Term Prospects

An experienced port operative can progress in stages to team leader, supervisor, port operations manager and general manager.

Team leaders may work towards NVQ Level 3 in supervision of port operations.

Some port operatives move into related areas, such as warehouse work, road transport or the Merchant Navy.

Get Further Information

British Ports Association (BPA), 4th Floor,
Carthusian Court, 12 Carthusian Street,
London EC1M 6EZ
Tel: 020 7260 1780
Website: www.britishports.org.uk

Port and Skills Safety (PSS), 4th Floor,
Carthusian Court, 12 Carthusian Street,
London EC1M 6EZ
Tel: 020 7260 1790
Website: www.portskillsandsafety.co.uk

UK Major Ports Group (UKMPG), 4th Floor,
Carthusian Court, 12 Carthusian Street,
London EC1M 6EZ
Tel: 020 7260 1785
Website: www.ukmajorports.org.uk

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