When millions of Americans ramped up their online shopping as lockdowns dragged on, ports around the nation were overwhelmed with container ships.

The Port of Virginia found itself in the right place at the right time, able to absorb a ton of that cargo due to expansions it had finished right before Covid-19 hit.

The Port converted plenty of those pandemic-era customers into repeat users, continuing to increase its traffic as the pandemic spike has subsided. A slate of additional expansion efforts means it will ramp up even further.

And that influx of cargo has spurred lots of economic activity beyond the terminal gates.

Local colleges have started programs specifically aimed at the logistics industry, the port’s performance has attracted new businesses and speculation on the continued growth of shipping in Hampton Roads has led to massive warehouse projects cropping up around the region.

Historic growth fuels labor needs

The Port’s pandemic boom and continued post-pandemic growth created more opportunities and good-paying jobs for workers in the region.

Shawn Avery, the president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Workforce Council, said the Port provided a lot of job opportunities during the pandemic for people who lost jobs in other industries. The Workforce Council was able to retrain former hospitality and retail workers for jobs at the terminals and in the downstream shipping and logistics.

“As we're seeing the port grow, we're also seeing businesses grow in our region. So Amazon, for example, everything associated with Amazon is really around connecting. They're here because of the port,” Avery said.

The jobs at the port and in related fields run the gamut from highly technical to entry-level. 

“And that's good to have in our region because it does provide a lot of opportunities for growth and a lot of opportunities for individuals who are interested in different levels,” he said. 

Employment in Hampton Roads stagnated throughout the pandemic, with the region only recently getting back to pre-Covid jobs numbers.

But one bright spot, and the biggest winner of any industry over the last four years, was transportation and warehousing. According to Old Dominion University’s State of the Region report, about 4,000 new jobs emerged in the sector between 2019 and 2023. A different ODU economic report shows the average ports and logistics worker in the area makes more than $72,000 a year, significantly outpacing Hampton Roads’ average salary.

But all those new jobs can’t be filled just by retraining refugees from other sectors.

Tidewater Community College is focused on solving one of the most urgent problems - getting more drivers in trucks, fast.

The college already had a semester-long program to train commercial drivers. But Laura Hanson, TCC’s interim vice president for workforce solutions, said they were hearing about overwhelming demand from trucking companies and other driver-starved businesses as the port’s business bubbled over

“It's not enough to just bring the product in, but we've got to be ready to move the product out, and so that was a big trigger for us,” Hanson said.

TCC started an expedited Commercial Driver’s License course in the spring of 2022. Like a high-school driver’s ed class, students study both in the classroom and out on the driving course. Once they’ve finished the course, they can head to the DMV to test for their commercial driver’s license, or CDL.

In less than two years, the program has turned out 121 students, the vast majority of whom have gone on to get their CDL. TCC started with one four-week class per month. Now, TCC is launching a new class every two weeks and they still can’t keep up.

“Even if we tripled our output, we'd come nowhere close to meeting the demand in the region,” Hanson said.

For some students, Hanson said the end result - that commercial driver’s license and a job in a growing field - is life-changing.

The average salary for a commercially licensed truck driver is around $60,000 in Hampton Roads, she said. That’s nearly the same as the median household income in Norfolk, according to U.S. Census data.

“So if you're head of household and you need to earn an income that's going to sustain your family, it's a terrific avenue,” Hanson said. And she points out that with so many drivers needed locally, both in trucking and fields like construction, it’s not all long-haul driving anymore.

Sam Kinloch was on the training range one cold afternoon in December, practicing parallel parking a trailer in one of TCC’s white training trucks. He works for a construction testing company that needs to tow construction equipment. 

But the trucking company recruiters who show up to class every couple days had Kinloch rethinking his job.

“It's kind of making me think like, ‘Wow, I could just leave that company and then go to a trucking company and make probably double,’” he said.

Ebone Gray, another student, was working in a restaurant before starting the class. She sees it as a way not just to get paid a lot more, but as a way to travel.

“I can drive for miles, but flying is a no,” Gray said.

Another recruiter told her about a program specifically for women to turn them into company trainers after just six months of driving, which Gray loved.

“Instead of going on the road, I could be working with people like myself,” she said.

While TCC is focused on turning around CDL candidates like Gray and Kinloch quickly, Old Dominion University started a whole new school to study the shipping industry.

Ricardo Ungo was already the director of ODU’s Maritime, Ports and Logistics Institute. Now, he’s also leading the formation of the new School of Supply Chain, Logistics and Maritime Operations.

Ungo said the outlook on the port and related jobs means lots of opportunities for those who can find them. But part of the challenge Ungo has found is that his students know very little about these industries.

“You have (Norfolk International Terminal) next door and you can ask the students … ‘Are there opportunities in the ports for you?’ Silence. They have no idea,” Ungo said.

The new school will begin with classes and certificates this fall. Within a couple of years, Ungo said it should be offering full degree programs. That will help students slide into manager-level positions.

Ungo said shipbuilding has long been the region’s dominant industry, but the steady growth of the shipping and commercial industry before and especially since the pandemic now means they’re roughly even in terms of the share of the region’s economy. 

Taken together, the non-military maritime industry now represents a fifth of the state’s workforce, according to a study published by William & Mary late last year.

Ungo said the port’s growth feeds into itself. More cargo means more shipping business, which means more jobs, which means there’s a workforce that knows supply chain and logistics. 

That, in turn, makes the region more attractive for other kinds of businesses that would need that kind of workforce.

“Once you have this volume here, then also that becomes a magnet for other activities,” Ungo said.

Cities try to capture growth

While colleges and agencies are trying to strengthen the logistics workforce, cities around the region are trying to grab a piece of the growing shipping pie.

A lot of that has come in the form of sprawling warehouses, where goods coming off the boat wait to be loaded up for the trip to their final destinations. 

In Portsmouth, which hosts two Port of Virginia facilities, Economic Development Director Brian Donahue said capitalizing on the proximity of the ports has been an “easy sell.”

Two large warehouse projects have gone up in the city in the last couple of years, including a 164,000 square foot freezer facility to store frozen foods shipped through the port.

But Donahue said the developable sites in Portsmouth are dwarfed by those in surrounding cities, which have bet big on monster warehouse complexes they believe will fill up as the port continues to expand.

In Chesapeake, the city has spent $14 million to buy farmland for a 1,400-acre megasite known as the Williams Tract. It doesn’t have any tenants lined up - the project is being prepared for construction totally on speculation, showing local confidence in the strength of the port.

That project in Chesapeake and a planned 510-acre warehouse complex in Suffolk have caused tension in the surrounding communities, fueling citizen-led efforts to limit development in those cities.

There are similar concerns in Virginia Beach, where economic development officials said to capitalize on the booming port, the city needs to be willing to build on land in agricultural areas that have historically been off-limits to development. 

A mysterious medical materials manufacturing facility codenamed “Project Wayne” touched off a firestorm last year as rural residents of Virginia Beach fought to preserve the city’s Green Line, a boundary that holds back development from stretching into the Pungo area.

One of the city’s biggest economic announcements of the last few years was an Amazon shipping center that would bring more than 1,000 jobs. 

Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer cited the growth and proximity to the Port of Virginia as a major factor in attracting the $350 million investment at the announcement in September.

How the Port capitalized on COVID – and what comes next

When the Coronavirus pandemic swept across the globe in 2020, everything ground to a halt.

“When COVID hit, you saw trade just fall off the table. We as an industry didn’t realize trade could get so bad,” said Joe Harris, a spokesman for the Port of Virginia.

About 18 months into the pandemic, after online shopping spiked, global trade came roaring back. But the shipping industry wasn’t ready for it. Supply chain problems drove prices up and left store shelves temporarily empty.

Dozens of cargo ships stacked up outside of ports like Los Angeles, waiting to unload cargo. Port terminals around the world were stretched past their limits. 

While other ports were slammed, Virginia’s port had just finished two major expansions, dramatically increasing its cargo cap. 

In Portsmouth, the Virginia International Gateway doubled its container capacity in 2018. And at the Norfolk International Terminal, a total overhaul of the southern half of the facility meant it became a next-generation cargo operation right before the spike hit.

“It helped attract business from ports that were struggling. And then it helped us retain that business where it didn't go back to where it originally was,” Harris said.

In December 2021, the port handled 25% more containers than it had the year before. 2022 went on to become the biggest year in Port of Virginia history.

Things have normalized since then, but the Port turned plenty of those pandemic-era customers into repeat users. Traffic is continuing to grow even as the pandemic spike subsided.

Another $1.4 billion in expansion efforts means it will ramp up even further and expects plenty more growth.

The biggest piece of the expansion is the deepening and widening of the shipping channel that connects Hampton Roads and the Chesapeake Bay. Once the dredging is done by the end of this month, the region will boast the deepest shipping channel on the East Coast, which will allow even larger cargo ships through.

More importantly, the widening will allow ships to pass each other in opposite directions - something that’s impossible right now. 

When a cargo ship is coming in or out, all other traffic is halted for hours, leaving ships idling in the Bay or stuck at the docks waiting their turn, Harris said. The opening of what he calls the “passing lane” will make turnarounds for cargo ships much faster - yet another selling point to attract evermore cargo to the region.

The port is also working on upgrading the rail system at Norfolk International, which is expected to wrap up this spring, and will overhaul the north end of the facility to match the upgrades done to the south side. That will take a couple of years but will make the facility even quicker and able to handle more containers. 

“That's really the sales pitch: Bring your big vessel in with loads of cargo. Don't worry about the water depth and don't worry about our ability to handle it, to process it versus some of our competitors,” Harris said.

Harris said many people took notice of supply chains for the first time during the pandemic, when items disappeared from store shelves.

“But I don't think that people realize that about 80% of what's in your house, what's consumed, what your house is made of, what you wear, what you drive came in on a container ship.”