The cargoes exist only on paper, and they reach their destinations only in theory.
But for students in the State University of New York's (SUNY) Maritime College Graduate Program in International Transportation Management, anticipating and planning for every contingency is as challenging on paper as in real life.
Every year, the program's second-year students choose between a pair of thesis papers or participation in the school's Capstone Project, explains Dr. Larry Howard, the Chairman of College's Global Business and Transportation Department. "About half the students choose the Capstone route," he adds. "It may seem attractive because it takes one semester to complete as opposed to two for the thesis. However, the work required is every bit as challenging, and puts our students in direct contact with experts in international cargo logistics and freight management who are doing the kinds of work they are now training for."
Teams of about 5-6 Capstone students must first develop a "cargo profile," a detailed description of a theoretical international cargo they will be "shipping." This requires detailed study of real-life cargoes of this type, and talks with companies and individuals involved in their production and transportation. The profile must also indicate where the cargo will originate and be delivered.
Once the profile has been approved by Dr. Howard and his staff, the team begins putting together a detailed plan for moving the cargo from point of origin to final destination - a proposal they will then "pitch" to a "client" company. Again, teams reach out to industry contacts, in many cases volunteers in freight forwarding and logistics firms.
One of those industry volunteers is UTC Overseas, Inc. Headquartered in Secaucus, NJ, UTC maintains a global network of offices and agency contacts to coordinate shipments for its customers around the world. "We support the SUNY graduate program because it's training people with the skills our industry needs to meet the needs of our customers," explains Marco Poisler, Vice President in charge of UTC's Project Cargo division, based in Houston, TX. "Capstone marries classroom learning with real-life examples of the kinds of challenges these students will face when they are working in the global marketplace."
This year, UTC personnel helped Capstone students develop cargo profiles and shipping plans. Oktay Bayramcavus, a project manager in Houston, fielded phone and e-mail queries from students as they prepared their projects. Bayramcavus received his formal university training in maritime business in his native Turkey and worked for six years there before coming to the U.S.
"The questions students asked were as varied as their projects," he observed. "I often directed them to resources where they could find what they were looking for. That's knowledge you develop over time from working in the industry. What I think students learn from this process is how many small details they have to think about and prepare for. They also learn how important it is to communicate with everyone involved in the project. The lack of a seemingly small detail like a minor change in cargo dimensions or weight can throw all of your plans into a snarl if that isn't passed along to the right people."
Once the students have completed their proposals comes the challenging "intensive," held this year on March 27th at the SUNY Maritime campus in Ft. Schuyler, NY. Each of the student teams had 15 minutes to present their cargo plan to a panel of experts made up of faculty and industry volunteers that included: Jeffrey Weiss, Esq., maritime attorney and SUNY Maritime Professor; Don Frost, Publications Editor for the Connecticut Maritime Association; Peter Lowman, former owner of Farrell Lines, and currently Managing Director of Global Capital Service Group; Rajesh Joshi, Foreign Correspondent for Lloyd's List in New York, and Gerry Ruediger, a German-born and trained expert in international freight forwarding and maritime chartering with over five decades of global experience. Ruediger today serves as a part of UTC's Project team providing his expertise on matters ranging from cargo charters and documentation, to overall protection of customer interests.
"After each group made their presentation to us, we offered either suggestions on alternate approaches or items we felt may have been overlooked in the planning," Ruediger said. "In all, each group got about an hour and a half of presentation, discussion and feedback."
"This was really a positive experience for me," Ruediger added. "Students can learn a great deal in the classroom, but it is exercises like this and apprenticeships with firms working in this field where they learn the finer details of the craft. I think it also helps them appreciate one of the real attractions of our business....that every day is different, with new challenges and new opportunities to create solutions for our customers and provide outstanding service."
Students incorporate ideas and suggestions from the professional panel into a final draft of their proposal which is then reviewed and graded by Dr. Howard and his faculty prior to graduation this spring. SUNY students who took part in the program felt it was very realistic and one of the best parts of their studies.
Twenty-five year old Annie Chen, born in Taiwan, and with an undergraduate degree in marketing from New Zealand's University of Auckland, said her initial work after college just wasn't what she was looking for. "My father told me I ought to look at the shipping business and after some intensive research, I found the SUNY graduate program and enrolled. It has really been a learning experience and reinforced my belief that this will make a great career."
Chen's team project was the shipment of five donated MRI medical imaging machines for the Red Cross from New York to Haiti in support of earthquake relief efforts there. "Our plan covered their movement from a New York warehouse to a packing company and then trucking them to Miami for ocean transport to the neighboring Dominican Republic. In our plan, we used a firm which specializes in aid shipments for the United Nations. They were best equipped to handle all the cross-border details and security required.
"I was nervous about the presentation but it seemed to go well. Feedback from the panel revealed, for example, that we hadn't paid close enough attention to cargo lashing points when we placed the MRI units on flat racks. For me, the value of this exercise was discovering how many details there are to what seems, at first, like a pretty simple project. You have to plan every detail...transportation providers, insurance, costs, customs clearance. You can't think on just a straight line. You have to constantly be thinking 'what ifs' and making plans to deal with them if they arise. I'm glad I chose Capstone.
It was also a good experience in working with other people. Our team was really international with myself, three students from Turkey and two Americans. You learn the importance of communication and using the strengths of each member of the group in getting the job done."
Brendan Magee already had several years of experience in freight forwarding before pursuing his graduate degree at SUNY Maritime. "I had a business degree from Concordia College and worked in freight forwarding, but felt that getting my Masters would open new doors in my career.
"Because of my experience, I became the de facto leader of our group. Our cargo profile was developed through a client company I had worked for which makes oil and gas pipeline processing equipment. We were shipping 14 odd-sized pieces of a "bobbin machine," -- used to process piping for the oil and gas industry -- from upstate New York to Malaysia. The shipment also included several containers of related equipment. We determined that it was more cost efficient to use separate ships for the bulk and container components, with both transshipping from New York over Singapore to Port Klang, Malaysia."
Magee felt that his team did a good job of developing the details of their cargo's movement, but also learned new approaches from the feedback process. "Our plan called for crated project pieces to be trucked to the port and staged for later loading aboard the vessel. Mr. Ruediger noted that with proper timing, they could be moved directly from truck to ship. Doing so saves time and money and reduces cargo handling, and the risk of damage to these expensive components."
Ruediger cited a recent UTC project as an example of the kinds of challenges students will face when they start new careers in cargo logistics -- the transport of three massive electrical transformers from Brazil to a client substation in New Jersey.
"The project took nearly two years to plan and complete. The ocean transport was the easy part, but the last 25 miles of the journey involved transiting one of the world's most densely congested population and transportation corridors including clearing the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway. It required coordination with 12 different regulatory and governmental bodies, and detailed engineering studies of bridges and culverts along the way.
"Getting past the NJ Turnpike required barging each of the units up the Passaic River, under seven different drawbridges, some of which carry high-volume commuter train traffic and could only be opened at off-peak hours. To further complicate matters, the barges could only move upriver during peak high tides. The units were offloaded at a specially prepared site on the banks of the river and driven 18 miles through downtown streets to the final destination, at night, using special heavy cargo trailers. The shipments had a one-inch clearance underneath the Garden State Parkway.
"You may think you have everything covered," Ruediger said, "but there is always something which comes up. You have to be able to think quickly and 'roll with the punches' to get the job done. On-the-job experience and learning is the final component which will transform these students into effective logistics managers in the years ahead. It's a challenging job, but tremendously satisfying...especially when you help a client achieve success. And no matter how long you work in this business, you'll always learn something new that makes you more effective."