In Europe alone, over 1,000 ports handle more than 3.5 billion tonnes of cargo every year. Ports can be busy places and offer exciting opportunities in many different areas. Jobs in ports range from stevedores to harbour masters whilst the size and function of a port will determine the number of employees – some of the largest ports employ over a thousand people. 

  • deal with imports and exports of raw materials and finished goods 

  • provide facilities for the fishing industry 

  • provide ferry and cruise-ship terminals 

  • offer recreational facilities, such as yacht marinas. 

What opportunities are there?

Ports are mechanised and cargo needs to be unloaded quickly and safely. Port workers need to be organised and efficient as vessels may be waiting to berth, and navigating in and out of the harbour will be affected by tides. With competition from airlines and road haulage companies, ports must also be run economically. Each employee’s role contributes to the smooth operation of the port. There are opportunities in technical work, administration, customs and management. Some of the jobs available in port operations are described below. 

  • Marine/port operatives – undertake various jobs on the water around the harbour/port area, such as moving navigational markers, positioning gangways, taking marine pilots out to ships, and possibly operating lock gates. 

  • Passenger operatives – work in ports that accommodate ferries and/ or cruise ships. They control the movement of passengers around the port area, and on and off the ferries/ships; they may also check tickets and deal with passengers’ queries. 

  • Stevedores – load and unload cargo; they may decide how to stack cargo in the best way or how to unload goods quickly and efficiently. They may have to drive different types of vehicles, or operate cranes, suction pipes and conveyer belts. 

  • Vessel traffic services operatives – work in the port control centre, controlling the safe movement of ships and boats around the port/ harbour area. They use marine radar and communicate with vessels by VHF radio, radio telephone etc. 

  • Marine pilots – board vessels entering or leaving the port or harbour, and navigate them safely in and out avoiding submerged rocks and other hazards. 

  • Harbour masters – ensure that the port is safe for all the vessels using it. They monitor environmental standards and manage leisure craft activity within the harbour. 

  • Engineers – maintain and repair machinery and equipment within the port. 

  • Port managers – manage all aspects of the work of the port, including health and safety, port development and liaising with the organisations using the port, such as freight companies. 

What skills and personal qualities do you need?

To work in ports you need: 

  • to be very safety-conscious 

  • teamworking and communication skills 

  • to be fit and healthy – some jobs require heavy lifting 

  • to be prepared to work irregular hours in some roles 

  • language skills for some jobs. 

What about entry, training and qualifications?

There are opportunities for people with different levels of qualification and experience. In many of the practical roles, such as stevedore or marine/ port operative, no formal educational qualifications are required although GCSEs or equivalent in English, Maths and Science are always useful.  

Marine pilots normally have considerable experience at sea, as deck officers for example. Entry requirements vary depending on the pilot authority, but candidates will usually need a ship master’s certificate. 

For jobs on the commercial and administration side, you may need GCSEs, A levels, or equivalent qualifications. 

The work can be very physical and involves being outside in all weathers. Previous experience of warehouse or transport services may be useful. Stevedores must have a driving licence. Experience of dealing with customers may be useful for passenger operatives.  

Training for all these positions is usually on the job, and you may be able to work towards relevant qualifications. NVQs are available in port operations and the supervision of port operations at levels 2 and 3 respectively. Port and Skills Safety are working on several training and qualification routes. Apprenticeships and a foundation degree are likely to be available in the future. Large companies often offer graduate management training schemes. The technical management of port facilities is usually carried out by people with some experience at sea, or with engineering qualifications and training. The IMarEST offers ‘Chartered status’ to suitably qualified, experienced and competent marine professionals. 
N.B. In the UK (and some other countries), regulations mean that no one under the age of 18 is allowed to operate certain machinery, including some lifting appliances. Therefore, certain jobs such as stevedoring have an entry requirement of 18. 

Who are the typical employers?

  • port authorities 

  • ferry companies 

  • cruise-line operators 

  • transport firms 

  • stevedoring companies 

  • freight forwarders 

  • warehouse operators 

  • ship repair and maintenance companies. 

What about future prospects?

On-the-job training and the right personal qualities can bring promotion to supervisory jobs or junior management positions for people in operational and technical roles.