» Port Commission helping inland shippers hire, train worker
By TED CARTER
An infrastructure analysis expected to be finished in February will set a course for the City of Vicksburg’s future in the Mississippi River maritime business – and perhaps as home to an entirely new port.
While the $240,000 study by Atlanta’s Jacobs Engineering Group will also look at the likely market return a $125 million port would bring, it will identify current infrastructure needs. “By mid-February we should know what direction we intend to go,” said Pablo Diaz, director of the Vicksburg-Warren Ports Commission.
“We do have a need for more port infrastructure,” Diaz said in an interview following the recent announcement that a major user of the current port – Golding Barge Line – is expanding both its workforce and vessel fleet.
As envisioned by Mayor George Flaggs and the Board of Aldermen, the 21st century port would be a centerpiece to a $55 million capital improvements project aimed at creating more well-paying jobs. The plan is to put up $26.5 million to match state and federal funds for the project.
Whether any of the capital improvements money materializes, however, hinges on Vicksburg voters approving a special penny sales tax.
More immediately, Diaz and the five-member Vicksburg-Warren Port Commission are at work helping to elevate the local maritime trade and enhance overall economic development for Vicksburg and Warren County.
They recently helped to persuade Mississippi legislators to enact a jobs tax credit that assists Mississippi-based inland maritime operators such as Golding Barge Line. The credits go to companies that carry cargo on inland waters and are limited to jobs that go Mississippi residents.
Diaz said about five Mississippi companies operate on the Mississippi while a couple more are based on the Tombigbee Waterway. “It’s a good number of jobs,” he said.
The Ports Commission is also helping to ensure Mississippi’s inland maritime outfits have an adequate supply of qualified job candidates. With the help of a U.S. Department of Labor grant, the commission teamed up with local barge operators and Hinds Community College four years ago to establish a deckhand school.
The seven-to-15-day training gives candidates an entry to jobs that pay an average of $67,000 annually after “a couple of years” on the job, Diaz said. “They can pass $100,000 in 10 years.”
Diaz called the partnership with the college “one of their most successful training and placement programs. Pretty much everyone is waiting for them with a job” on completion, he said.
Students are enrolled after undergoing pre-employment assessment from a sponsoring barge line. Designed to simulate life and work as a deckhand., the program puts students in a local hotel and provides instruction in shipboard cooking and cleaning in addition to basic tow-boating skills such as working lines and maintain safety.
“They experience everything that comes with the job,” Diaz said. “It’s a week to 15 days depending on the complexity of the training.”
With the early instruction given new hires, Diaz said, the barge lines see fewer on-the-job accidents and deckhand turnover.
The grant expired in 2017 but the companies and the college dipped into their own pockets to maintain the training. More help came in July 2018 with a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant awarded by the Delta Regional Authority.
Meanwhile, Hinds is working on plans to build a training center for deckhand candidates, Diaz said.
Diaz cited Golding Barge Line as an example of a maritime company benefitting from the workforce readiness effort. Testifying last March before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Austin Golding noted the program’s contribution to Golding Barge’s success,
“Our company alone has hired 312 graduates of this program since its inception,” Golding said. “We have seen improvements in our safety performance, as well as improved entry level retention.”
Military veterans especially find the industry “a perfect fit,” and an opportunity to capitalize on skills they developed in the Armed Forces, he said.
Golding used his testimony to urge more attention to the nation’s inland waterways infrastructure, warning that many of the locks and dams that barges travel are well beyond their economic design life.
“Many corners of this country are perilously close to losing their gateway to the world market,” he said.
Money for the infrastructure work comes from a 29-cents-a-gallon diesel fuel tax that goes into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund.
“We voluntarily increased that by 45 percent in 2014 from 20 cents to 29 cents because we want to see proper investment in the system,” Golding told the committee chaired by Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican.
“That 29 cents per gallon is the highest gas tax per gallon of any commercial surface transportation mode,” Golding said, but a lot more federal support is needed “to keep our waterways viable.”
Ultimately, the infrastructure deficit could force the cargo onto the nation’s overly burdened roads, rails and pipelines, Golding warned.
Diaz has the same worry. Congress, he said, should enact a bill that addresses infrastructure for ports. Getting products to market must be “made more effective, easier and faster,” Diaz said.
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