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Trade volumes at local ports grow, but job gains lag

May 13, 2011 | 11:47 am

International trade numbers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach improved by more than 6% in April when compared with a year ago. It was the 15th straight month of growth at the nation's largest seaport complex, although the pace of that increase has slowed. But trade-related jobs, while showing gains throughout the state and the region, were building at an even slower pace.

Ports latimes photo The twin ports handle more than 40% of the nation's imports from Asia, making them an important barometer for the strength of the U.S. economy. The ports are also part of one of the state's most important job engines in wholesale trade, transportation and warehousing. But even though seaport trade is up almost 8% so far in 2011, trade jobs are up just 0.7% in Southern California and by just 2.8% in California.

"Employers are still being very cautious. As trade volumes have picked up, they are getting more out of the people they already have, and they are hiring temporary workers who do not show up in the full-time employment figures," said John Husing, founder and head of Redlands-based Economics and Politics Inc., which tracks international trade and provided the trade jobs numbers.

In Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura counties, the most recent trade-related employment statistics showed a growth of 4,100 jobs to 564,833, a gain of about 0.7%, compared with 2010, Husing said. Statewide, there were 1,062,800 people employed in international trade jobs, up 29,400 compared with 2010, Husing said, adding that job gains should improve as employers grow more confident about the economy.

At the ports, the mood was positive.

"These are solid, sustainable numbers for us. It's a good range for us to be in," said Art Wong, spokesman for the Port of Long Beach. His counterpart at the Port of Los Angeles, Phillip Sanfield, said, "We're pleased that we are continuing to see strong, steady growth."

Experts who track international trade through the nation's biggest seaports were expecting the trade numbers to level off in May, then remain steady until the summer, when they were expected to show another spurt as goods are shipped for the busy end-of-the-year holiday season. But those experts said that was not a sign that the economic recovery was losing steam.

“After nearly a year and a half of volume increases, it’s not surprising to see some leveling off,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy for the National Retail Federation, which tracks trade volumes at all major U.S. seaports.

“Retailers are being cautious with how much merchandise they import due to economic pressures such as higher commodity prices, but overall consumer demand remains strong,” Gold said.

One of those commodities Gold referred to was oil, and fuel prices are likely to be a bigger burden for the nation's importers and exporters later this year as the ocean freight lines that carry the cargo pass on hefty surcharges for the bunker fuel that runs the cargo container ships.

AXS Alphaliner, the Paris-based maritime consulting firm, said that, by June, those fuel surcharges are expected to surpass record levels set in 2008.

In April, the Port of Los Angeles handled 312,360 cargo containers carrying imports, up 3.4% compared with a year earlier. Export containers through the port climbed 5.8% to 167,448 compared with the same month in 2010. Overall, including empty containers, the port moved 617,273 cargo containers in April, up 3.7% compared with a year earlier. Through the first four months of the year, traffic at the nation's busiest port is up by 8.5% to 2.4 million containers.

At the neighboring Port of Long Beach, which ranks second only to Los Angeles in container trade, the number of import containers rose 12% to 270,107 in April. Exports through Long Beach were up 10.4% to 143,683 containers. Overall, including empty containers, the port moved 531,090 containers, up 9.5% compared with a year earlier.

Combined, the two ports were up 6.3% with 1.1 million containers moved in April compared with a year earlier. Both ports are up 7.9%, to 4.3 million containers through the first four months of 2011.

-- Ronald D. White

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