This interview was originally published in World Trade Matters – the quarterly journal from the Institute of Export & International Trade.
As a partner at Strong & Herd LLP, Sandra specialises in practical compliance issues relating to international trading including customs, UK, EU and U.S. export controls.
Sandra is a highly-sought-after speaker on international trade matters and her straightforward and common-sense approach to often difficult legal topics is appreciated by both business, legal and government professionals.
With a deep commercial understanding of international trade, she provides advice to transport sector clients, trading companies, and professional and industry bodies. With over 30 years’ experience working with all industry sectors but particularly aerospace, defense, chemical and high-tech industries, she works alongside international legal practices to provide a practical view.
You’re known as one of the UK’s leading Customs experts but how did you get into the industry?
By accident in truth. I had been to university and was looking at what to do next when I saw an advert for a role in an import-export department and I thought that might be fun for a while. I joined that department and stayed with it as it was a fascinating role, with new challenges everyday and plenty of travel.
I was learning all the time and I’m still learning new things today. It took me completely by surprise what a fantastic job it was. It wasn’t a career I thought I’d get into, but I’ve now been doing it since 1983, which is over 35 years!
Congratulations on such a long career in Customs! Is it still the case that most people fall into Customs by accident?
Unfortunately, yes, it’s not viewed as a career path within schools and colleges, which it should be. A lot of people end up in international trade or Customs due to their living near a port or airport, or because their relatives are already involved in it.
What I’d really love to see, and a reason I’m proud to be involved with the IOE&IT, is for Customs and global trade to be seen as offering a professional career path for people.
There’s more of a career path within the Customs authorities, but in regard to international trade, businesses usually put someone else in the job to look after their processes and Customs, whether that’s someone in dispatch, accounts or sales. The person responsible for Customs or export-import processes is doing something that they’ve not been employed to do.
People should be encouraged to see a career path in global trade and that needs to be worked on by trade associations, schools and Government.
How important is prior training and education for changing attitudes towards Customs and export roles?
It’s essential. You can enter any career and train within it, and that’s one of the best ways of learning about something as you’re able to apply your learning every day.
However, there needs to be greater awareness about trade in the school and college environment as well. People need to recognise it as a profession, and this is something I’ve been passionate about for years.
Global trade is far more in the forefront of people’s minds these days due to Brexit and the US-China trade wars. Is this moment in time an opportunity for increasing awareness about global trade?
Brexit and trade issues between China and the USA, Canada and the EU, are big news and this is positive for people seeking a career in trade. Yet there’s still a significant gap.
There’s a lot of talk and money being put in to increasing the number of global trade professionals in the UK, but I don’t think there’s a joined-up understanding of what happens in a business, in relation to trade, and what it is that businesses need.
There also needs to be an understanding that companies and individuals who are involved in the logistics, freight forwarding, or intermediaries areas have distinct and different roles and skills to people who are involved in Customs, for instance. These roles cannot be easily grouped together and if you’re in a career global trade, you need to be clear on what your path or niche is going to be.
People who are just looking after Customs entries everyday aren’t going to see a significant pay rise because of Brexit as that roles isn’t viewed as being particularly professional. However, if you’re in a business dealing with Customs more generally, being involved in the compliance side or dealing with things like sanctions and licenses, your skills are more likely to be respected by businesses and there is a clearer career path for you.
In the UK, businesses don’t generally tend to have a department with a specific export focus. Instead, businesses just get on with exporting as and when orders come in. Though Brexit has increased awareness about Customs and international trade, a lot of the processes involved are being handled by intermediaries and external support. What we’re not yet seeing is businesses enhancing their internal knowledge about Customs and export processes.
To what extent do businesses need to have a clearer role for Customs within their organisational structure and strategy?
A business that doesn’t understand international rules and regulations will only get away with it for so long. The bottom line is that they’ll be losing money because you need to be aware of what’s happening globally and be able to make strategic changes.
In the 3 and a half years of Brexit negotiations we’ve seen that there are still businesses who have not yet considered what to do should the UK leave the EU without a deal. That’s a difficult challenge for the government. We pride ourselves on being an exporting nation, but we don’t respect exporting. Businesses get orders from overseas, and that’s great, but they don’t think about how to develop it.
Many companies do have an export focus, but since Brexit we’ve seen so many who don’t, and they will struggle if the UK leaves the EU without a good trade arrangement. There are obviously time restraints and political uncertainty makes it difficult to plan for unknown situations, but it’s endemic in some businesses that trade isn’t a focus. Trade is something people do by default without thinking it through.
What are the major tips you would give to people embarking in a career in Global Trade in 2020?
Go for it and figure out which part of international trade you feel more comfortable with. There’s a lot of opportunities for travel which is exciting, but you may be more interested in the legal side or the practical side, from sales and purchases to completing customs entries.
It’s a fantastic career – every day really is different – but if you do go down this route, get yourself prepared. Take the qualifications and training that are out there and make sure you’re doing it with organisations who know what they’re doing.
We are in a transitional phase in the UK now, but for anyone who is interested in international trade, this is the time to do it. So, find your niche, and go for it!