· Features

Case study: Recruiting expertise for Brexit customs chaos

Brexit created a huge demand for advice on customs and trade procedures at the Institute of Export & International Trade – and a massive recruitment challenge to be overcome, finds Peter Crush

The organisation

Set up in 1935 as a charity for enhancing export performance after the Great Depression, the IOE&IT has grown to become the UK’s leading membership body for exporters and importers. 

Today it represents the interests of more than 4,500 members: manufacturers (53% of members) retailers (25%), suppliers, freight forwarders, shippers and customs agents. 

As part of its remit to raise the standards of those involved in international trade, the IOE&IT delivers national and international training and works alongside key government departments including the Department for International Trade and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. 

It is a co-partner of the UK Customs Academy (UKCA), the world’s first online training platform dedicated to customs skills. Since this launched in September 2019, more than 6,000 students have gained qualifications. In April it also co-launched the online Diploma in International Trade, co-funded by the United Nations.

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The challenge

With the UK’s exit from the EU on 31 January 2020, an 11-month long transition agreement was ushered in, injecting huge uncertainty into businesses wanting to either start or carry on importing and exporting to the EU. 

With government policy still evolving about
how businesses would navigate the new trade landscape, a heavy educational requirement was predicted by the IOE&IT to help firms cope with new forms and processes. 

“For the first time since 1973, the UK government would be in control of international trade, but it would require a huge shift in how businesses needed to operate, with the IOE&IT needing to lead the way on how to interpret the ever-changing advice,” says the institute’s director general Marco Forgione.

As of March 2020 though, the IOE&IT had just 15 full-time staff plus a further 10 contractors. It predicted it would need an additional 54 staff and so an ambitious recruitment strategy was needed – particularly to ensure new hires were onboarded and up to speed as fast as possible.


The method

Not only did the IOE&IT face a problem trying to triple its headcount, it also needed to find scarce expertise that was now in extremely high demand as other organisations were similarly looking for answers to their import/export questions. 

The specific skills needed revolved around delivering specialist customs and trade knowledge to firms contacting the institute’s call centre – people that could help traders moving goods between Great Britain and the EU, post transition.

“Demand for customs consultants was at its peak,” recalls Kelly Rawles, the IOE&IT’s head of HR and administration. “This time last year we also knew that by the end of November 2020 – as the transition period was drawing to a close – we would need an additional 20 more people on top of the 54 required immediately.” 

She adds: “Not only did we then face COVID-19 suddenly plunging recruitment more generally into chaos, but we increasingly realised that the main attribute we needed was experience – the lived experience of people who had successfully managed complicated international trade movements.” 

To try and find such skilled people who were available straight away it partnered with Talent Retention Solutions (TRS), which places people working in downsizing companies. 

In addition, it also decided to track down retired import/export professionals who had the experience the Institute needed and could hit the ground running.

Rawles says: “We knew we needed people with extensive international trade experience. 

“To find retirees who we hoped we could tempt back into the workplace, we scoured our own membership database. This is because many of our members continue with us even after they’ve finished their careers.” 

Simultaneously, Rawles also worked behind the scenes to prepare an entirely new online onboarding programme. Given the people the Institute hoped to target would already have the knowledge it needed the programme focused around equipping them with IT and Institute process skills.

To entice trade specialists out of retirement, attention was also given to ensuring these jobs came with flexible working options for example, working for two or three days a week.


The result

The IOE&IT successfully hired the 54 trade specialists it needed before the October deadline it had set itself was breached. This was followed by recruiting the extra 20 it needed before 31 December 2020.

Those who came from TRS, the outplacement company, comprised just over 40% of the intake, while three others were successfully coaxed out of retirement.

The objective of hiring experienced personnel was easily met, with around 40% of those taken on each having at least 20-30 years’ experience.

Onboarding was also successfully completed, using eight different virtual events, ranging in size from three to 10 team members. 

Such was the success in reaching a broader talent pool that some of the hires were from outside the UK – a first for the IOE&IT – with new customs consultants coming from Dubai, Spain and Greece. 

“The process of having to find such skilled people has definitely given us the encouragement to think outside of the UK for hiring,” says Rawles. 

“Our recruitment overall has changed things in other ways too. When we first hired these people, they were employed on a two-year contract, but we’re really excited to be able to move them onto permanent contracts.” 

Increasing the team’s size so quickly has made the people team at the organisation rethink culture and how it is maintained. Rawles shared that they are currently in the process of re-writing vision and values to reflect that change. 

All-told the speedy hiring process also facilitated a much more considered approach to maintaining staff engagement, with everyone empowered to make decisions, able to query what is being done and to have an active role in the direction of policy. 

Less obvious, but just as important, has been the drive this has created to percolate knowledge throughout the organisation. 

Rawles says: “We were obviously very committed to hiring older employees, to tackle the skills shortages we were experiencing. But with the new recruits on board, we’re keen to ensure this knowledge is transferred, so our younger team can benefit from their experience.” 

One result has been the creation of a series of Yammer groups, where all staff can ask for help about the interpretation of a particular regulation and see if the rest of the customs consultant population has a different view on it. “The Yammer groups are used daily,” says Rawles. “At least 50 questions are put up each week.”

To further embed this, from day one, all new recruits were also given a ‘buddy’. Often older employees are paired with younger members of staff, and according to Rawles, younger team members have their own experience to impart to older staffers. 

“The best part of this project is that this group chose to be with us when, with their skills in huge demand, they could have gone elsewhere. We know a key reason they opted for us was to be part
of a large group of like-minded trade experts, educating the industry rather than working for just one company.

“But the way we did it, I feel we got a much more committed group of people. While we were very clear about the skills we needed, what I feel we did was evoke the sense that this was a major, once-in-a-lifetime project – that people had a chance to help businesses sail through the choppy waters of Brexit.”


This piece appears in the May/June 2021 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe now to get all the latest issues delivered to your desk.