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Michael Coleman: Port workers keeping Virginia well supplied

The Virginian Pilot

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Michael Coleman

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May 17, 2020

The Virginia Maritime Association extends its sympathies to everyone coping with difficulty and loss from COVID-19. We are sincerely grateful to those risking exposure on the frontline of this fight. Among them, but not popularly recognized, are women and men keeping vital medical supplies and other essential goods moving through the maritime supply chain.

The weakened economy has reduced cargo volumes, which are expected to remain depressed well into the summer. However, the goods crossing our docks include medical supplies, personal protective equipment, food, household staples and supplies used to combat the virus in our homes and workplaces. Other goods continuing to flow through our port support different sectors of our economy, including manufacturing and agriculture. This activity is joined by the steady hum of shipbuilding and maintenance work to help buoy our economy while so many other sectors are suffering dramatic declines.

Among those on the frontline deserving our gratitude are the vessel crews, dock workers, shipyard employees, truck drivers, warehouse workers and many others whose hands-on labor is needed each day to keep the supply chain of vital goods moving. Our member companies have adjusted operations and implemented necessary precautions to protect these supply chain heroes. The relatively low number of waterfront employees diagnosed with COVID-19 suggest these measures have been effective.

Just as the maritime industry sustains us today, it will lead our economic recovery. In 2020, the VMA is celebrating our centennial anniversary and, during those 100 years, the industry has grown into a major force that generates more than 530,000 jobs statewide. No other industry in our region offers the same history of stability, and no other offers the same promise for future economic growth.

This pandemic may produce changes in supply chains, but global trade is still expected to grow. Amazon recently announced it will build new facilities in Suffolk and Chesapeake creating 1,500 new well-paying jobs. These job announcements, and many others, evidence the significant new capacity and efficiency improvements at the Port of Virginia’s container terminals which, combined with the ongoing dredging to widen and deepen our channels, will continue to be a catalyst for economic development.

The U.S. Navy plans to rebuild its fleet to a possible 355 ships, up from the current 290 ships. Newport News Shipbuilding has a 10-year backlog of work requiring thousands of new employees. Growing to maintain that larger fleet will be the companies and workers in our already robust and vital ship repair industry.

Literally just over the horizon, offshore wind development is beginning off Virginia’s coast. Dominion Energy plans to build 220 offshore wind turbines by 2026. A similar scale project will be built off the coast of North Carolina, and other offshore wind projects are in development elsewhere on the East Coast. Virginia is well positioned to become the epicenter of these construction and subsequent operations and maintenance activities, resulting in thousands of well-paying new jobs.

However, certain actions are needed to help our maritime industry reinvigorate the region’s economy. The VMA is coordinating with our members to address industry specific needs to reduce costs and improve efficiencies in port operations and supply chains. Like other sectors, the maritime industry needs include greater clarity about economic reopening from the president and governor, increased testing and PPE, greater access to CARES Act funds (including for 1099 workers such as the majority of port truckers), employer protections from liabilities associated with a pandemic, and regulatory cooperation with business in weathering the crisis.

The VMA celebrates the women and men on the frontlines of the maritime supply chain. Like the companies that employ them, they help sustain our community through this pandemic and will be the foundation upon which our economy will grow with opportunities for many more to participate. They are supply chain heroes, for whom we should all be grateful.

Michael W. Coleman is Virginia Maritime Association president and president of CV International and Capes Shipping Agencies.