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Friday, October 13, 2017, 10:39
Hammering down the male bastion
By Nora Zheng
Friday, October 13, 2017, 10:39 By Nora Zheng

Women remain a rarity in the shipping and logistics industry, but with a shortfall of manpower, their time is coming, writes Nora Zheng

Ching Hiu-man, a slender young woman of 1.65 meters, stood staring at the sheer awesomeness of the big heavy-duty forklift tire — about as high as the top of her head — and almost had second thoughts about her new career as a mechanical fitter apprentice at a container terminal.

“Women are frustrated by the huge machines. They believe they can’t meet the standards or physical demands,” said Dorothy Chan Yuen Tak-fai, deputy director of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) School of Professional and Continuing Education (SPACE) and head of Centre for Logistics and Transport.

It’s not at all that Chan is opposed to women working with heavy-duty machinery, quite the contrary. She’s all for it.

And so is Ching — except that the diameter of a single part of the quay crane’s gearbox is more than 110 centimeters. The span of the gantry crane is eight container widths. The machine can lift to a height of six containers.

“That’s very much bigger and more complicated than I thought,” she observed with a boyish laugh. And she didn’t seem at all out of place with her well-tanned complexion and closely cropped hair dyed yellow. Her grey coverall smelled faintly of tobacco.

People may care to know that, in this industry, you don’t have to use your muscles to operate the machinery. There’s automatic equipment

Ching Hiu-man, female shipping and logistics worker

She pointed out that even hammers, the most basic tool, comprised an exhaustive list — subdivided into claw hammer for general work, ball-peen hammer for shaping metal, cross-peen hammer for shaping panel pins, and cross-peen pin hammer for light joinery and cabinet work.

She may have been surprised, but it couldn’t have been half as much as her new colleagues seeing for the first time this diminutive-looking young woman coming onto the shop floor. 

Ching was the first female mechanical fitter apprentice in the Equipment Maintenance Section of the Engineering and Procurement Department at the container terminal. At first, her colleagues mistook Ching for a man quite often when she was working in her bulky engineer’s protective helmet and gear. When she spoke, though, it gave her away.

Indeed, Ching is a rare woman working in shipping and logistics. It’s a male-dominated industry in Hong Kong. A report by Women’s Commission in 2011 found out that women make up only 22 percent of employees in logistics and transport.

Even that figure may be inflated on the women’s side. Some companies didn’t respond to the survey questionnaire and many of those reputedly did not favor hiring women.

Ching had an additional liability piled on to her lack of familiarity with the equipment. She’s not an engineer and her previous jobs had been unskilled, so it was a big break for her when she was taken on as an apprentice at Modern Terminals Ltd in Kwai Tsing, the second largest container terminal operator in Hong Kong.

“I knew nothing about mechanical engineering before joining the industry,” Ching recalled.

Ching thinks she can make a go of it and that it’s unfair that anyone would write off her chances just because she’s a woman. She dreams of becoming an outstanding engineer at a container terminal. 

Learning the craft meant shadowing senior engineers, looking over faulty machinery, and trying to memorize how repairs were made. And there have been a few testing moments. 

Ching was checking an oil link from a brake drum and had to squeeze herself through a narrow gap, finish the repair in darkness and then squeeze back out again. The whole crew burst into laughter when she emerged with oil smeared all over her face.

“Not everyone can squeeze himself through that narrow space; however I made it and completed the mission,” Ching said with a shy smile. “After that, I got more trust from the team.”

Industry needs more women

Manpower shortages in the shipping and logistics industry are the source of ongoing concerns. 

In 2014, the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport estimates that projects in Hong Kong would provide an additional 24,500 vacancies in the industry next year. In a study published by Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management last year, logistics and transport were tagged as the sector that will be most affected by the talent shortage, with up to 64 percent of jobs unfilled in 2015 among the 150 companies polled.

The industry has also been complaining about a lack of skilled workers. The latest report released by Sea Asia 2017, a maritime and offshore conference in Asia, revealed that about 63 percent of the maritime industry leaders believed that the industry is facing a severe skill shortage, especially in data analysis, that could limit the growth of the industry. 

That problem could be exacerbated by the need for talent by the government, to advance Hong Kong’s role in the Belt and Road Initiative over the next decade or so.

“China’s Belt and Road Initiative is expected to create US$2.5 trillion of additional trade in the next 10 years,” said Tim Smith, chairman of Maersk China — a private freight and logistics company — at last year’s Asian Logistics and Maritime Conference. “It is one of the few things which really seek to stimulate demand in industries suffering from lack of global demand.”

Hong Kong sees Belt and Road as a huge opportunity for the city’s future — and the government has rededicated itself to strengthening Hong Kong’s competitive pillar industries, including shipping and logistics, in order to capitalize on all the benefits.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor promised in her maiden Policy Address to create effective policies that will revitalize the industry, capitalizing on the city’s reputation as a leading shipping port.

This echoes the central government’s statements set out in the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) that Hong Kong should “continue to consolidate and develop its role as an international financial, trade and shipping center”.

Modern shipping and logistics is a collaboration between the supply chain, logistics personnel and the transportation business. 

Attracting more women to the industry, especially in the technical sector, could be the remedy to the welling manpower shortage — and it’s to be noted that the percentage of women working in the industry in Hong Kong is lower than the figures in the West.

A survey in 2014 by the Women’s Foundation found that in Australia women account for 24 percent of employees in the supply chain industries; in Canada, it’s up to 39 percent. 

Bias and the change

Chan from HKU believes the low rate of women working in the industry is driven by the workplace environment, as well as by public perceptions toward female workers.

Employees in the industry sometimes work around large ships, using hoists and forklifts. Women just don’t see themselves doing those jobs.

Besides, popular sentiment holds that logistics and shipping are the work of big, muscular men and that, in itself, is a turnoff for many women.

“People may care to know that, in this industry, you don’t have to use your muscles to operate the machinery. There’s automatic equipment,” Ching countered.

Technology is changing everything, including the shipping industry. There’s heavy-duty competition and without automation companies couldn’t compete in today’s market. After all, the game is about getting products safely to their destination, on time.

That process requires the skills of engineers, legal experts and people with business acumen. That’s where recruitment is going, as far as the industry goes. The gap between women and men is getting narrower. It’s not a business that demands raw strength any more.

Fanny Wu Fan, a graduate student at HKU majoring in shipping and logistics, said most of her courses deal with the law as it applies to shipping, e-commerce and business.

“I believed that with the Belt and Road Initiative gradually rolled out, the prospect of the industry is getting better,” she said.

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