Staffing an import compliance department

A recent discussion thread on the Global Trade Compliance Professionals LinkedIn group page examined the issue of how many employees constituted a “properly staffed import compliance department.”   While there is of course no definitive answer that applies to all importers, the thread highlighted key considerations when evaluating staffing decisions, summarized below.

As pointed out by the discussions, the most obvious factors to consider in staffing levels are:

  • Import volume – entries and ISFs
  • Degree of complexity of entries
  • Average line items per entry
  • Number of ports/shipping lanes used
  • Involvement of OGAs
  • Degree of system automation

Additionally, the staffing number will also depend on whether the importer uses the services of a customs broker or self-files entries/ISFs.

  • If using a broker, the compliance staff must determine the level of involvement needed to provide the broker with all of the relevant information, to be available for follow-up questions and other oversight, and, most important, to audit the broker’s performance.
  • If self-filing, the importer must have resources dedicated to filing, including self-auditing.  In many cases, the number of employees necessary for direct filing may be the same or even less than that are required to oversee a broker, since the importer is more familiar with the particulars of their import stream, and it is more efficient to not use external parties.

In addition to entries/ ISFs, the staffing number will be affected by other responsibilities that the compliance staff will undertake, such as maintaining a compliance manual, employee training, product classification, filing PEAs, lodging protests, performing reconciliations, etc.

Beyond the specific number of import compliance personnel, another issue for an importer to consider is the type of positions that need to be created.   For example, the compliance department could need a supervisor, entry specialists, pre-entry specialists, and/or post-entry audit staff.

Moreover, there is some debate as to whether an importer needs a licensed customs broker on staff.  On the positive side, an LCB generally has more knowledge of the regulations than those who did not go through the licensing process.  Also, US Customs may view having an LCB on staff as a sign of the importer’s commitment to exercising “reasonable care.”  On the other hand, LCBs usually require a significantly higher salary, which may not be justified if there are other non-licensed experienced staffers who have a similar command of the regulations.

An import compliance department may augment its staff by “borrowing” from other departments.  For example, one respondent described her company’s situation:

…[O]ur shipping department contributes to our “Trade Compliance” program without being in our [international trade compliance] department….  Shipping interfaces with the shipping company and our homeland warehousing, while my department does the work with our Customs Broker, US Customs and our factory and manufacturing vendors for our scheduling, pricing/costs, problems, classifications, regulatory reporting ad the C-TPAT program….  I also draw from the Accounting Department for 1 or 2 people when needed for tasks that impact financial aspects…. These “borrowed” staffers are trained by us and frankly enjoy the change of scenery from their usual jobs.  All these instances of “sharing” personnel from different department help control our costs and department size.

And, of course, an import department may augment its staff by outsourcing certain functions to outside attorney, accountants, consultants and the like.

The Global Trade Compliance Professionals LinkedIn group page is available here (membership required).

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