Dock work: a transformed trade

Dockworker: a well-paying job that takes concentration and dexterity.

Wedged in the driver’s seat in the glassed-in cab, between heaven and earth, her hands gripping levers, Manon Comtois keeps her eyes fixed on the container hanging from the long cable of her crane.

Manon Comtois and Sébastien Dupuis, two dockworkers who love their job.

She needs all her concentration as she lowers the heavy 40-foot long metal box into position, 20 metres below, onto the trailer of a truck that looks like a toy. All four corners of the container must absolutely and perfectly match the four corners of the trailer. Slowly …

Click! To Manon’s right, the yellow button on the dashboard lit up, informing her that the container is properly secured to the trailer. With the push of a button, Manon disconnects the container from the cable connected to the crane. One down!

During her four-hour shift, she will unload an average of 115 boxes stored on the containership, which can carry up to 6,000 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units). “The toughest thing is the wind! It swings the cables and the containers hanging from the end of them,” said Manon. Fog doesn’t help, or heavy snow or driving rain. But only strong wind manages to stop the work of crane operators.

“Even though I followed in my father’s footsteps, I am not doing the same job he did in his time!” said this daughter – and sister! – of a longshoreman, who already has 21 years of experience.

In fact, before automated equipment came along, dock work was much more physically difficult. To unload a ship, the longshoremen had only the strength of their two arms. Cargo arrived in bulk, in bags or in wooden boxes. It took weeks to empty a vessel.

Now unloading time is calculated in hours! It takes a few days at most to empty a container ship of its thousands of containers. An army of cranes, forklifts and trucks have replaced arms. The task that requires a bit more physical strength is locking the containers on ships, using long heavy metal bars.

Pierre Ménard and Serge Pételle are two experienced longshoremen who have become trainers,
giving us a demonstration of the simulator, at the new technological training center. The occupation
of dockworker is made for people - men and women - who enjoy learning.

Dock work duties

The tasks are many and varied. The job of crane operator requires further training. There are several types of cranes on the various terminals. A longshoreman or longshorewoman can also be assigned to drive a terminal truck, a loader, an excavator or a forklift, which come in several types. He or she could also be required to work aboard ship stowing containers. Some dockworkers also act as checkers, meaning they coordinate the movement of goods on terminal territory.

The advantages

Sébastien Dupuis got his degree in physical education before opting for the profession of longshoreman, like his father, uncle and grandfather. He drives a truck used to move and store the containers on Termont terminal land. He is one of three men who drive two trucks during an eight-hour work shift, in a safe workplace. “I make a good living and we have excellent working conditions,” he said. The tasks are varied and everyone can specialize in the tasks they prefer. Sébastien bluntly stated that tall cranes are not for him. “I like being out in the field!” “And I like being up in the air!” replied Manon, laughing. She can’t see herself working indoors and she loves the fabulous sunrises in the early morning.

The challenges

The biggest challenge in the dock work profession according to Manon and Sébastien is the scheduling. A dockworker must be available 19 days out of 21 and may have to work an eight-hour shift at any time of the day or night. Loading and unloading vessels can be done 24/7 depending on when the vessels calls at the port. Freight transport doesn’t wait!

The difficulties directly related to performing the tasks are the whims of Mother Nature: intense cold, wind, fog, snow, rain, hail, storms and thunderstorms.

Who’s it for?

“The right type of candidate is someone who can work in a team, has a good sense of adaptability and a strong learning ability,” said Guillaume Couture, Director, Manpower and Dispatch, Maritime Employers Association (MEA). Manon and Sébastien add that a good dockworker is someone who is available, on the ball, responsible and able to concentrate: “There’s lots of traffic on terminal property! Trucks from the city, machinery carrying heavy loads, hazardous materials, etc. You have to be alert,” said Sébastien.

There are about 1,000 longshoremen in Montreal, including about 120 longshorewomen. 

Who hires dockworkers?

The Maritime Employers Association (MEA) hires all the dockworkers for the ports of Montreal and Trois-Rivières. When a vessel is about to arrive at a port terminal, the terminal operator in question lets the MEA know how many dockworkers will be needed. The MEA is also responsible for training dockworkers and negotiating their working conditions on behalf of the companies they represent.  

A new technological training centre

Since last year, dockworkers at the Port of Montreal have been attending a new school with equipment on the cutting edge of technology, all fully adapted to the operations at the Port of Montreal. The MEA is very proud of its training centre, and with good reason.


In addition to rooms dedicated to theoretical training, there are all the tools needed for practical training. A huge warehouse-like room is furnished with containers, a railcar, a truck trailer, a handling platform, forklifts and even a reproduction of a ship’s bilge. People can practice stowing the containers with metal bars, lifting all kinds of loads with the forklift and more, under the experienced gaze of the instructors, dockworkers themselves.

But the highlight of the visit is the heavy equipment simulator! In front of a chair, a true replica of the seat in a real crane, there is a giant three-sided screen. Using a computer, the trainer makes 3D images appear that create the environment perceived by the crane operator on a real dock. Seated in this chair, you are immersed in a life-sized video game!

Using levers, the dockworker in training practices getting a container from the ship and transferring it onto a truck trailer. All it takes is a click to plunge the student into a snowstorm, gales of wind or driving rain. Or the middle of the night.  It can also stimulate the unexpected, for example a cable that snaps or a ship that starts to move. Thanks to the simulator, the dockworker can learn to manage every imaginable situation in complete safety. The GlobalSim simulator’s software is customized for the Port of Montreal.

The dockworkers in training will spend a few days on the simulator before continuing their training on a real crane, their trainer by their side, until they perfectly control how to balance and lift heavy loads.

In short, the occupation of dockworker is made for people – men and women – who enjoy learning, who feel stifled in the four walls of an office, who don’t take security lightly and who like to drive heavy equipment. Recognize yourself?