Companies highlight the challenge of having to hire customs staff to prepare for a no-deal UK exit, roles they may no longer need if a last-minute deal is made.
Freight firms are intensifying their recruitment efforts to prepare for a no-deal Brexit even though some of the roles may not be needed in the event of a last-minute deal between the UK and the EU.
Europa Worldwide said it was in the process of recruiting for a range of permanent and temporary-to-permanent roles, aiming to hire 40 customs clearance and operational staff at its hub headquarters in Dartford, Kent, between now and the UK’s official EU leave date of 29 March 2019.
The company said it would hire advisers with strong customs clearance experience to run a team of operations staff, with the roles set to require a range of experience including customer service, data entry, processing and sales administrators, covering both day and night shifts. “They will also be on hand to guide our customers through the complex customs process in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the company said.
Mark Chopping, internal recruitment and acquisitions manager at Europa, will be managing the recruitment programme, said: “We’re now in the process of recruiting and would like to get our new team in place as soon as possible, shadowing our current imports staff. We’re in a unique situation where we’re having to plan for vastly different outcomes without a clear idea of which will prevail – we can’t afford not to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, but if a last-minute deal is made we might no longer need the roles we’re recruiting for.”
Dominique Willems, senior manager at European freight forwarding association CLECAT, said that in the past few years even prior to Brexit there had been an increase in the demand for services provided by customs brokers and freight forwarders in Europe, leading to a shortage in employees with sufficient skills and knowledge − putting additional pressure on an already-demanding operating environment. And with the prospect of Brexit leading to more manpower being required to accommodate the potentially greater workloads resulting from the re-introduction of border controls, he noted that in contrast to government services departments, forwarders did not have the flexibility to hire and train additional staff in the expectation of possible extra work.
“You cannot recruit, say, 20 people and then tell them a month later they will not be needed any more because all of a sudden there is a (Brexit) deal or the process is being postponed,” Willems told Lloyd’s Loading List. “Dealing with a ‘no-deal’ Brexit is not unmanageable, but it is very challenging.”
Chopping commented: “We’re dealing with this challenge by being completely transparent throughout the recruitment process, making sure all candidates are fully aware of the possible outcomes. There will be incentives in place for all our permanent recruits in the event that their role does not continue due to a last-minute Brexit deal.”
He added: “With the growth Europa has seen over the last few years, we also anticipate that we’ll have room for people to be redeployed to other areas of the business. We’re a well-known and well-respected company in Dartford, employing hundreds of people from the local area, and we care very much about keeping our community happy.”
Europa said the company was in growth mode and its strongest-ever financial position with annual turnover of £180 million, aiming to more than double this to more than £400 million by 2022.
Andrew Baxter, managing director of Europa, commented: “We have plans in place to ensure we’re ready to switch to a full customs clearance from 29 March if necessary, and we’ve been engaging with clients. We have expanded capacity in our hub facility to create space for freight that may become slowed down by the clearance process, and reviewed varied options for alternative shipping routes. We’re facing the possibility of a big change, and a challenging one at that, but we’re doing all we can to be prepared for all outcomes.”
Freight industry associations including the FTA and British International Freight Association (BIFA) have for some time been advising freight forwarders and logistics companies to prepare for a ‘hard’ or ‘no-deal’ Brexit and have been working with their members on their preparation and recruitment needs and plans. Robert Keen, director general of BIFA, said a hard deal may well be very disruptive and damaging for the UK economy as a whole, but freight forwarders – many of whom are Authorised Economic Operator (AEO) accredited – “will play a key role in tidying up the mess left by the politicians by ensuring UK importers and exporters can continue trading without undue disruption with the rest of Europe after 29 March”. Nevertheless, Keen stressed that a no-deal Brexit would inevitably lead to significant disruption to freight and trade, even among those traders and agents that were relatively well prepared or holding AEO accreditation, with international road freight operations the most likely to be heavily disrupted.
Keen told Lloyd’s Loading List that BIFA has been working with members that are training customs agents for new offices at the port of Dover, in anticipation of a huge need for customs clearances there if there is no transition period. He said it seemed that market could return to the days prior to 1992 in which there were large numbers of customs agents in and around the Dover area.
Some limited UK government funding has recently been make available to help train extra UK customs brokers in preparation for a no-deal Brexit, but that Lloyd’s Loading List understands this was being focused on online or one-day courses. Keen pointed out that it takes several years for UK Customs body HMRC to fully train a customs agent, so he did not believe that it was possible to train a very high quality customs broker in a single day.
Philip Stephenson, chairman of UK forwarder Davies Turner, told Lloyd’s Loading List that the company’s contingency planning was “well underway, but constrained by the short time period we all have to work, with less than two months to go now. With the short and medium term future so uncertain, we’re planning for a worst-case scenario and strengthening our existing regional customs clearance departments with extra staff and additional training.
“We are able to customs-clear trailers at all our main customs-controlled hubs (Dartford, Heathrow, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow as well as Dublin), hopefully thereby avoiding congestion at Channel ports. Our AEO accreditation may also give Davies Turner ‘trusted trader’ status.”
He noted that Davies Turner also had the benefit of a strong pan-European network, including through its membership of System Alliance – with standardised EDI links.
He added: “We are fortunate at Davies Turner in that we are uniquely placed to use the existing customs clearance skills, specialist departments and systems that already process, for example, over 100 trucks per week to and from Turkey, plus more from North Africa and Switzerland among our non-EU overland services. We already customs-clear our ocean freight and air cargo services.
Our UK hubs are approved for customs-clearance work, which should allow us to bypass the worst of any congestion within the ports and proceed for clearance by the experienced Davies Turner teams inland. Our plans, therefore, centre around the massive additional volumes of declarations, many hundreds of thousands per annum in our case in the event of a hard Brexit. This involves boosting our existing teams with a national recruitment plan, as well as upskilling more of our existing employees, apprentices and graduate trainees in customs-clearance activities.
“We are now actively engaging with and advising our customers to ensure they are accelerating their own planning, and are prepared to give us all of the necessary information about their shipments including EORI numbers, tariff numbers, commodity codes and incoterms in a ‘no-deal’ scenario working under WTO terms. We also can offer our customers buffer warehousing to act as a cushion against congestion.”
As Lloyd’s Loading List reported earlier this month, France is also facing a serious shortage of customs brokerage personnel as it gears up for a ‘hard’ Brexit and the re-introduction of border controls from 29 March. A survey carried out by the forwarding branch of the country’s leading freight transport and logistics federation, TLF, estimates that there is a need to recruit and rapidly train 1,000 staff.
A senior official of the trade body said the task was made significantly more difficult by the fact that there were presently no suitably qualified candidates on the French jobs market to take up posts. This has led to TLF liaising with some of France’s leading training organsiations in the sector, among them Aftral, to request they draw up emergency plans to offer new sandwich course provision to be made available at the earliest possible date. “Aftral currently trains around 70 customs brokers annually and without doubt can increase the number of training places to 200 or 300, but not 1,000,” said Olivier Thouard, president of TLF’s Brexit working group and who is also Customs and Tax director at French logistics company Gefco.
He did not elaborate on how the shortfall in customs brokerage staffing requirements would be made up but did reveal that in anticipation of Brexit, Gefco plans to recruit “several dozens” of staff and open two new customs facilities – one in Lille in northern France and the other in Gennevilliers, in the Paris suburbs. Gefco has also booked training places on courses provided by Aftral that begin at the start of next month, he added.