Friday, September 3, 2021

Recruitment Group Reviews the Changing Face of UK Customs Requirements

Where Will the Trained Extra Staff Come From?
Shipping News Feature

UK – Whilst the commercial vehicle driver shortage has suddenly become known to the wider public as certain goods currently no longer appear on the shelves of shops and fast food outlets, there is another better hidden reason, directly linked to Brexit, which is having an effect on the supply chain.

This week Leigh Anderson, Managing Director at bis Henderson Recruitment, revealed his company has been under pressure to find suitably qualified staff with knowledge and experience in Customs procedures, a shortage that he says is beginning to pose an existential threat to many small, and not so small, companies that rely on international trade.

Recruitment companies are a useful bellwether in this type of situation and one client of the Northampton headquartered group has been trying to recruit 300 suitably able staff across five offices. According to the National Audit Office, as a result of Brexit 145,000 companies whose international trade has hitherto been solely within the European Union are now having to master Customs procedures for the first time, generating over 200 million extra customs declarations, each of which is comprised of multiple documents.

So at the administration and clerical level, many companies will have to recruit and train up staff with absolutely no previous experience in Customs administration. There are no specific qualifications in this field, but training can be sourced through a number of commercial providers, and also through bodies such as the British International Freight Association (BIFA), and the Institute of Export and International Trade.

BIFA estimates that 40–50,000 extra staff are required. However, there is nothing like that pool of talent available. Much of the existing skill base is concentrated, understandably, around ports and airports, so businesses seeking to establish their own Customs functions are competing for staff against freight forwarders, customs agents and of course HMRC itself, which has been looking for several thousand extra bodies. Salaries for anyone with even slight experience in the field are, inevitably, being driven up.

BIFA’s response has been to upscale every aspect of its training, offering courses for the incoming Customs Declaration Service (CDS) and help with obtaining government funds for apprenticeships, dedicating a web page for the purpose. The Apprenticeship Levy can be applied to some courses in international trade but HMRC’s Customs Training Grant scheme for SMEs however closed in July when it became oversubscribed.

Delays and prevarication on both sides of the Channel have not helped. When the Union Customs Code, which regulated and simplified all trade into, out of, and through the EU, came into force in 2016 it was understood that the whole process would be digital by 2020. The European Commission is now talking about 2025. Europe, and HMRC, continue to trial elements of the required software. Meanwhile, imports and exports are still governed by a mass of physical paper, which must be completed in the correct colour of ink!

Arguably companies, and the nation, should have seen this coming, though there are mitigating factors. Quite what the post-Brexit arrangements would be was unclear until very late in the day and it can be argued that few anticipated the strict ‘letter of the law’ approach that the EU has adopted, not just the pig’s breakfast of Northern Ireland trade arrangements. Even now, stages two and three of the ‘Border Operating Model’ have not come into force, although they will most probably do so by the end of the year.

Meanwhile the UK government ploughs on, often giving the impression that policy is being made ‘on the hoof’. Trade envoys to the variety of countries being wooed for business include Sir Ian ‘Beefy’ Botham and 82 year old Life Peer Lady Baroness Hooper, CMG, DSG, FRSA, FRGS. Anderson point out that the proportion of UK trade with non-EU countries, with all their individual Customs requirements, has been growing for many years. New trade agreements with non-EU states continue to be signed, all with subtly different provisions and implementation dates.

All these factors combine to make the perfect storm we are witnessing as importers and exporters, freight forwarders and 3PLs all struggle to accommodate the extra work now involved. The immediate effect is the rising cost of services from customs agents and the potential for recruitment companies such as bis Henderson to make bespoke appointments.

The company sees a future where different skill sets may be required, managers who understand the Customs environment and how it is likely to evolve in the future. Which trades should be managed in house, or are there particular circumstances or complications (bonded goods, perhaps?) where use of an agent is preferable. How many staff are needed and in what roles, from clerks and administrators to international trade specialists? What are their training requirements now and in future, what would career progression look like, important for staff retention, and so on.

What is certain is that, in house or out sourced, with the changing work patterns we have seen due to the pandemic, and the shifting needs of shippers and the paperwork they will be required to handle, each company will need to take careful stock of both the current situation and possible changes in the future.