From 14th century traders transporting commodities through trade routes along the Silk Road, to the rise of global trade during the Industrial Age of the 18th and 19th centuries, to the fully integrated global network of businesses, trade pacts and non-governmental organizations that help facilitate international commerce in the 21st century, international trade has long since been an important component of business.
Global trade has helped to reduce prices, increase competition and improve accountability; all while giving consumers better choices in the marketplace. The result of modern production techniques, efficient transportation systems, rapid industrialization and outsourcing is a more prosperous world, where international trade is as accessible to small businesses as it is to the largest of multinationals.
In 2009, President Barack Obama emphasized the value of international trade when he said, “The United States and our trading partners stand to gain when trade is open, transparent, rules-based, and fair, showing respect for labor and environmental standards.”
For most nations, international trade accounts for a large percentage of gross domestic product, and for developing nations it may be the single biggest economic driver, serving as the main catalyst for decreasing poverty while increasing access to education, healthcare and a better standard of living.
Opportunities in International Trade
According to the World Trade Organization (WTO), international trade among all participating nations was valued at $16 trillion in 2009 and is expected to grow at an annual rate of 7 to 9 percent. If annual growth remains relatively constant at this level, by 2025 international trade between nations will be valued at an estimated $70 trillion.
Private industry, non-governmental organizations, governments and citizens from around the world all stand to gain from exploring and supporting international trade as is evident in this collection of figures provided by the World Trade Organization, U.S. Small Business Administration, The U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis:
- Ninety-six percent of the world’s consumers—or nearly two-thirds of the world’s purchasing power—exists outside of the United States
- The United States is the world’s largest merchandise trader, with imports and exports totaling $3.2 trillion in 2010
- As of 2010, the United States was the world’s second largest services trader in the world, holding a global share of 15.9 percent
- U.S. exports of services totaled $604.9 billion in 2011, up $56 billion from 2010
- U.S. imports of services totaled $425.9 billion in 2011, up $22.8 billion from 2010
- U.S. exports of goods in 2011 realized an increase of $202.4 billion over 2010
- U.S. imports of goods in 2011 realized an increase of $293.8 billion from 2010
The Growing Importance of the International Trade Specialist
With the continuing expansion of the global market comes the need for professionals familiar with the intricacies of international trade. Companies and organizations—both large and small—seek out international trade specialists to provide guidance and to offer expertise on any number of issues related to foreign trade, including import/export customs law compliance and custom brokerage, free trade agreements and trade law compliance, financing and logistical management, navigating foreign trade barriers including licensing and permits, trade restrictions and tariffs.
International trade specialists, who may also be called import/export specialists or foreign trade specialists, may perform one or more of the following job duties, depending on the individual needs of clients:
- Develop effective logistical strategies based on established objectives, market characteristics and cost factors
- Identify and seek out potential trade partners and clients
- Identify and seek out potential locales for manufacturing and distribution
- Study and analyze a foreign market’s import and export laws, trade embargoes or tariff structures
- Facilitate shipments across international borders by documenting and tracking shipments, understanding and operating within customs rules and regulations
- Coordinating economical packaging and distribution efforts
- Counseling clients on measures for reducing cost
International Trade Specialists Within Government Agencies
Both federal and state governments, as well as many trade regulatory agencies, employ a large number of international trade specialists whose job it is to advise exporting companies. International trade specialists employed through government agencies are sometimes called import compliance specialists, or are referred to as international economists. International trade specialists that work for governmental agencies are often responsible for managing funds, contracts and assistance agreements; coordinating programs and activities with other agencies; managing contracts and grants; implementing strategies for trade capacity building; and reviewing and analyzing the laws, regulations and policies governing trade in foreign markets.
International trade specialists work closely with the following government agencies to help make the international trade process as accessible as possible to U.S. companies:
- Department of Commerce
- Food & Drug Administration
- International Trade Commission
- (Department of Homeland Security) U.S. Customs and Border Protection
- Federal Maritime Commission
- Surface Transportation Board
- United States Department of Transportation
- United States Federal Districts Courts
- United States Department of Agriculture
The International Trade Administration, through their U.S. Commercial Service division, serves U.S. exporting businesses by providing trade counseling, market intelligence and commercial diplomacy in an effort to create “lucrative business opportunities.” International trade specialists are the professionals who represent trade organizations like the International Trade Administration and serve U.S. business interests by helping export companies:
- Develop international business plans for entering or expanding activities within a target market
- Determine export licensing needs
- Understand and comply with global product standards, including packaging laws and certification requirements
- Understand intellectual property rights and other legal issues
- Verify tariff rates and other import fees specific to a given foreign market
- Understand and resolve customs-related issues
- Formulate an export strategy for leveraging loan programs provided by trade finance organizations
- Identify possible trade partners
- Overcome trade obstacles in order to enter international markets
International trade specialists also provide U.S. exporting businesses with a great deal of trade data so as to help them spot trends and make informed decisions around specific countries, industries and commodities; as well as providing information on tariffs, trade restrictions, trade laws and agreements.
International Trade Education and Degree Programs
A number of undergraduate programs can serve as a solid framework for a career as an international trade specialist. Those who pursue careers in international trade often hold undergraduate degrees in:
- Global business management
- International finance
- Business administration
- Political science
- International business
Students can expect internships, fieldwork and conferences related to international trade to be a significant part to their coursework. Many graduate programs encourage students to study abroad when developing their master’s thesis so as to gain a more global perspective as it relates to business and culture. It is also widely accepted that individuals in international trade possess bilingual or multilingual skills, so students very often pursue a foreign language elective.
Graduate degree programs tend to be more specialized and geared toward specific areas of international trade:
- MBA: International commerce
- MBA: International business
- International Policy
- Global public policy
- International affairs
- International management
- International development
- Government and foreign affairs
- International trade
- International economics
- International relations
Courses in these programs are very targeted, supporting the specific skills and areas of knowledge required to work in international trade:
- Business in the Global Political Environment
- Cross-Cultural Behavior and Negotiations
- Doing Business in Different Cultures
- Supply Chain Fundamentals
- Technology in Global Markets
- Economics of Developing Countries
- Globalization and Emerging Markets
- Import/Export Principles and Practices
- International Accounting, Economics, Finance, or Marketing
- Multinational Corporate Strategies
- Global Organizational Behavior
- Global Strategy
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management defines an international trade specialist as a higher-level government employee, meaning these positions within government are usually filled by individuals with at least three years of work experience in a field related to international trade. Most students of international trade begin as entry-level assistants in marketing and finance before advancing to international trade work.
Salary Expectations for International Trade Specialists
The United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides salary figures for a number of professional industry classifications related to international trade:
Transportation, storage and distribution managers earn an average of $86,630, while the most experienced, which represent the 90th percentile, earn an average of $133,490 yearly.
The BLS classification for logisticians showed an average annual salary of $73,510. The top ten percent under this classification earned an average of $108,080.
Business operations specialists earn an average salary of $67,710, while top earners in the 90th percentile earn an average of $91,990.
The annual salary for economists was listed as $99,350. The top 10 percent of professionals in this field earned $155,490 on average.