Stevedore Career

Stevedores, commonly known as longshore workers or dockworkers, handle cargo at ports, often using materials- handling machinery and gear. They load and unload ships at docks and transfer cargo to and from storage areas or other transports, such as trucks and barges. Members of the water transportation industry, stevedores are employed at ports all over the United States. The concentration of jobs is at the large ports on the coasts, and experienced skilled workers hold most of the positions.

History of Stevedore Career

Stevedore CareerThere have been stevedoring workers in North America since colonial times. Long ago, when a sailing vessel arrived at the docks of a settlement, criers would go up and down the nearby streets summoning workers with a call like “Men along the shore!” Stevedores, or longshore workers, came quickly in hopes of a chance to make some extra cash by helping to unload the ship’s cargo. Often, these longshore workers lived in town near the port and had other occupations. Ships arrived too infrequently for them to make a living at the docks. But as the volume of shipping increased, a group of workers developed who were always available at the docks for loading and unloading activities.

Ship owners usually wanted to have cargos moved through ports as soon as possible. They preferred to pick temporary workers from a large labor pool at the time there was work to be done. However, this practice produced unfavorable wages, hours, and working conditions for many workers. In the 19th century, longshore workers were among the first groups of American workers to organize labor unions to force improvements in working conditions.

In ancient times, a ship’s cargo was handled in single “man-loads.” Grain, a common item of cargo, was packed in sacks that could be carried on and off the ship on a man’s shoulders. As methods progressed, the ship’s rigging became used for hoisting cargo. The first cargo to need a special type of handling was fuel, which used to be transported in barrels. As the volume of fuel increased, barrels became inadequate. Since the late 19th century, oil products have been shipped in bulk, with no packaging, pumped directly into the hull cells of tankers.

Cargo handling has thus depended on the type of cargo shipped. Vehicles are simply rolled on and off; dry bulk like coal and grain is often poured into cargo holds. In the first part of the 20th century, longshore work slowly became mechanized, relying less on human labor and more on machines. Since the 1960s, containerization of cargos has been a major factor in ocean shipping. This method of transporting goods involves putting freight into large sealed boxes of standard sizes, sometimes fitted as truck trailers. The containers, which can be carried on ships that are specially built to hold them, are easily and quickly moved on and off ships at ports, thus keeping the cost of transport well below that for uncontainerized cargo. Such changes have greatly reduced the demand for stevedoring workers to do manual loading and unloading.

In the last two decades, more longshore workers than ever before are women. Approximately 13 percent of longshore workers in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union are women.

The Job of Stevedores

Stevedores perform tasks involved in transferring cargo to and from the holds of ships and around the dock area. They may operate power winches or cranes to move items such as automobiles, crates, scrap metal, and steel beams, using hooks, magnets, or slings. They may operate grain trimmers (equipment that moves bulk grain through a spout and into the hatch of receiving containers). Stevedores may drive trucks along the dock or aboard ships to transfer items such as lumber and crates to within reach of winches. They may drive tractors to move loaded trailers from storage areas to dockside. They may load and unload liquid cargos, such as vegetable oils, molasses, or chemicals, by fastening hose lines to cargo tanks. Stevedores also do other manual tasks such as lashing cargo in place aboard ships, attaching lifting devices to winches, and signaling to other workers to raise or lower cargo. They may direct other dockworkers in moving cargo by hand or with hand trucks or in securing cargo inside the holds of ships.

Some stevedoring workers perform just one category of specialized tasks. For example, boat loaders may load liquid chemical and fuel cargos such as petroleum, gasoline, heating oil, and sulfuric acid by connecting and disconnecting hose couplings. At each stage in the process, they make sure various conditions are safe. Other boat loaders tend winches and loading chutes to load iron ore onto boats and barges. Winch drivers operate steam or electric winches to move various kinds of cargo in and out of a ship’s hold. They may alternate jobs with hatch tenders, who signal to winch drivers when the cargo is secured and ready for transfer. Gear repairers fix gear that is used in lifting cargo and install appropriate equipment depending on the current cargo-handling needs on a particular vessel. Among the many other workers in the dock area are drivers, who drive rolling stock (including forklifts, trucks, and mobile cranes), and carpenters, who repair pallets and construct braces and other structures to protect cargo in holds or on deck.

Headers or gang bosses supervise stevedores. They assign specific duties and explain how the cargo should be handled and secured and how the hoisting equipment should be set up. They may estimate the amount of extra materials that will be needed to brace and protect the cargo, such as paper or lumber.

Stevedoring superintendents are responsible for coordinating and directing the loading and unloading of cargo. Before loading begins, they study the layout of the ship and the bill of lading to determine where to stow cargo and in what order. Freight that must come out first is usually the last to be loaded. Stevedoring superintendents estimate the time and number of workers they need for the job and give orders for hiring. They make sure that the available equipment is appropriate for the cargo load, and they may direct workers who are handling special materials, such as explosives. Stevedoring superintendents prepare reports on their operations and may make up bills, all while keeping in touch with the company representatives from whom they get their directions.

Pier superintendents manage business operations at freight terminals. They determine what cargo various vessels will be carrying and notify stevedoring superintendents to plan to have workers and dock space available for loading and unloading activities. They compute costs; oversee purchasing of cargo handling equipment and hiring of trucks, tractors, and railroad cars; and make sure that the terminal facilities and the company’s equipment are properly maintained.

Shipping operations require individuals who have good recordkeeping and accounting skills as well. Workers who do these tasks include shipping clerks, who maintain information on all incoming and outgoing cargo, such as its quantity and condition, identification marks, and container size. Location workers keep track of where cargo is located on piers. Delivery clerks and receiving clerks keep records on the loading and discharging of vessels and on transferring cargo to and from truckers. Timekeepers record the work time of all workers on the pier for billing and payroll purposes.

Stevedore Career Requirements

High School

If you think you might be interested in becoming a stevedore, you should take classes in mathematics and English as well as shop and physical education to help prepare you for the different aspects of the workload.

Postsecondary Training

Often, no special preparation is needed for this kind of work, as many stevedores learn what they need to know, such as equipment operations, on the job. However, experience operating similar equipment is likely to be an advantage to any applicant and may result in more rapid advancement.

Workers in some positions need clerical or technical skills that can be learned in high school or vocational school. For administrative occupations, college-level training or experience as a ship’s officer is often desirable. Supervisory personnel generally need an understanding of the whole process of loading and unloading a vessel. They must be able to deal with a labor force that may include inexperienced workers and that changes in number from day to day.

Many stevedoring jobs are open only to union workers. Unions to which stevedores belong are the International Longshoremen’s Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. In some ports, jobs are allocated based on seniority, so newcomers may be left with the least desirable jobs.

Other Requirements

Stevedores who work on the docks need to be agile and physically fit. Their work may be strenuous, sometimes requiring lifting weights of up to 50 pounds. Good eyesight and dexterity are essential. Some jobs can be adapted to some extent for workers with disabilities. Stevedores may work in situations that are potentially dangerous, so they must be able to think clearly and quickly and be able to follow orders. Because longshore work is a team effort, stevedores must work well with others.

Exploring Stevedore Career

To find out more about stevedoring occupations, contact the offices of the longshore workers’ union in your area. Union representatives can provide you with information about the likely conditions and prospects for local jobs, as well as answer questions and provide an insider’s view of the field. Students in coastal areas have an advantage over others because they can visit ports and ask questions about what is involved in being a dockworker.


Stevedores are employed at all U.S. ports. The bulk of jobs are concentrated on the coasts, and larger companies employ greater numbers of longshore workers. Usually, applicants must be a union member to secure a position with one of the larger companies.

Starting Out

To find a job as a stevedore, you should contact the local union offices or shipping companies to find out whether workers are being hired. Those who would like eventually to work in an administrative position, such as pier superintendent, should consider entering one of the maritime academies (schools that train officers and crew for merchant vessels). Another possibility for people interested in administrative work is to enter a training program conducted by a port authority, which is an organization at a port that controls harbor activities.


Dockworkers may start out doing basic labor, such as loading trucks or following instructions to load cargo in holds. Later, if they prove to be responsible and reliable, they may learn how to operate equipment such as winches or forklifts. In general, this kind of advancement depends on the need for workers to do particular tasks, as well as on the individual’s abilities. Those who demonstrate strong abilities, leadership, and judgment may have an opportunity to become gang bosses and supervise a crew of other workers. Advancement into administrative positions may require additional formal education.


Minimum wages can be negotiated by unions; in 2002, the International Longshoremen’s Association’s union contract called for a minimum wage of $27.00 per hour, or about $56,160 per year, for experienced workers. New employees were paid starting salaries of $15.00 per hour. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that tank car, truck, and ship loaders made a median hourly wage of $16.34, or about $33,990 a year, in 2005. Stevedores receive extra pay for handling certain difficult or dangerous cargoes and for working overtime, nights, or holidays. In addition to earnings, full-time workers usually receive good benefits packages that may include pension plans, paid holiday and vacation days, and health insurance.

Work Environment

Although parts of piers are covered by sheds, many stevedores must be outdoors much of the time, including in bad weather. Working around materials-handling machinery can be noisy. At times, hours may be very long, such as when it is important that a lot of cargo be moved on and off piers quickly. Stevedores work under stress to meet deadlines. Some work is strenuous, involving lifting heavy material. Stevedores must use care to avoid injury from falls, falling objects, and machines. Some workers, such as those in certain supervisory positions, move about fairly constantly.

Stevedore Career Outlook

A number of factors are contributing to a lack of growth for longshore occupations, including increased automation, containerization, and the combining of jobs in the industry. Although certain large ports will experience growth and require larger numbers of stevedores, data from the U.S. Department of Transportation reflects a stabilization—and in some cases decline—in the number of people employed in the water transportation industry. Of course, increasing retirement among union members will assure a certain number of new jobs each year. Also, to remedy labor disagreement problems at smaller ports, union officials have devised a travel plan for longshore workers in smaller ports who have decided to work at bigger ports whenever positions are available.

The trends toward automated materials-handling processes and containerizing cargo are well established. In the future, fewer people may be hired for manual loading and unloading tasks, and the stevedoring workforce will probably be highly skilled, well trained, and will consist mostly of full-time workers.

For More Information

International Longshore and Warehouse Union

International Longshoremen’s Association