Los Angeles: America's Port

Not all ports are created equal. And when it comes to the heavy hitters, none is heavier than the combination of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Which means opportunities here are golden.

“Most people do not understand or know that Los Angeles and Long Beach [combined] is the largest shipping port in the country and the sixth largest in the world,” said Michael Baker, an attorney specializing in international trade law, international finance and customs law who also teaches at UCLA Extension International Trade and Commerce Certificate Program. “This is the gateway for goods into the United States and it provides a land bridge for goods coming from Asia to Europe.”

Consider that both ports combined for approximately $400 billion in total trade in 2014, far exceeding runner-up New York/New Jersey at roughly $207 billion.

Devin Raymond saw opportunity at the adjoining L.A. and Long Beach ports while working for an economic development firm in Albany, N.Y. Looking to change careers, he eyed the Southland and in 2012 enrolled at UCLA Extension’s International Trade and Commerce program. Nine months later, the Villanova graduate had a certificate in international trade and commerce from the Westwood campus, and he’s now providing logistical support for an international freight forwarding company.

“Los Angeles truly is a globalized city,” Raymond said. “L.A. is the center of international commerce in the United States, and the UCLA Extension program has a lot of professors who are veterans of the industry. It was not difficult establishing a career here as a graduate of that program.”

Not that Los Angeles and Long Beach are without their challenges. A recent labor dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Assn. was responsible for an estimated 20% decline in incoming shipping containers in January and February, creating shipping delays that were devastating for some businesses.

“A week delay is an infinity when it comes to produce. A six-week delay is half the fashion season,” said David French, who teaches international finance and international strategy at UCLA Extension and serves as the chief executive officer of the Los Angeles-based business strategy firm of David French & Associates.

Although a deal was finally reached, challenges remain. For example, dredging projects are underway at East Coast ports as they prepare to handle the arrival of megaships once a Panama Canal overhaul and expansion is completed, perhaps as early as next year.  The expansion, which would roughly double canal capacity, could have a significant impact on East Coast ports, allowing for passage of much larger container vessels which could potentially reduce the cost of trans-ocean shipping, according to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation.

What made these two Southern California ports the major players they are today? Several factors.

“What really grew the L.A. ports is the Los Angeles economy, which is so diverse, and you also have the rail lines and infrastructure here that you won’t find elsewhere,” French said. “In Los Angeles, you have agriculture, apparel, aerospace. In San Francisco/Oakland, for example, it’s mostly finance. And you don’t need a port for finance.”

Goods from Asia can be shipped to Los Angeles, offloaded onto rail cars and trucks, sent to the East Coast and shipped to London up to a week faster than it would take a ship going through the Panama Canal.

Trade with Latin America also contributes to the Southland ports’ dominance. “When it comes to agriculture, whatever is off season here is in season in Latin America,” French said. “Citrus, corn, soybeans, sorghum, berries. You get avocados pretty much all year long because of South America.”

“Los Angeles is a pretty diverse port,” French added. “You have some of the largest cranes in the world, and that enables you to offload huge items that you just cannot offload at any other shipyard. It’s really hard to imagine any [U.S.] port right now overtaking Los Angeles and Long Beach.”

David Ogul for UCLA Extension

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