A government grant scheme intended to expand the UK customs industry ahead of new post-Brexit border controls is helping to fuel the poaching of already-qualified staff.
According to two leading customs brokerages, which spoke to the Financial Times on condition of anonymity, the £50m scheme had enabled companies to recruit staff already working within the industry while still qualifying for up to £15,000 in subsidies per new employee.
Both brokerages complained they had already lost several staff as a result of a spate of staff poaching in recent months, causing junior brokers’ salaries to increase significantly.
“The government wanted to increase the number of customs brokers in the industry, not help to fund the poaching of experienced agents from one company to the other on more and more ridiculous salaries,” said one leading broker.
The UK freight industry has estimated that the country will need 50,000 more customs intermediaries to help complete an anticipated 260m new customs declarations annually as a result of the UK leaving the EU’s single market and customs union at the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31.
Under the government scheme announced earlier this year, employers can receive £3,000 towards recruitment and up to £12,000 towards salary costs, as well as £1,500 for external training.
Recipients need only to show that the new hiring will “increase the capacity” of their company to deal with customs declarations, but are not required to recruit from outside the industry.
Emails seen by the FT show recruitment agencies offering the services of experienced staff already working in the industry while highlighting the available subsidies.
One Essex-based agency, Red Recruit Global, offered the services of “a very professional candidate, currently working at a well-known customs agent”, while simultaneously reminding potential employers of the sizeable grants available to offset hiring costs.
The website for grant applications said that the scheme had so far funded 600 “new” customs agents — but it is unclear how many of the new recruits were actually “new”.
The government said the average salary for recruits was £24,000. Up until January, more experienced brokers were earning £25,000 a year, suggesting either the industry was witnessing wage inflation for less-experienced new entrants or the greater movement of already qualified brokers.
Austin Butterfield, Red Recruit Global’s shipping recruitment supervisor, said the grants were facilitating both new recruitment and movements within companies. A customs broker with two to three years’ experience who was previously earning £25,000 in January now able to command in the region of £35,000, he added.
“To teach someone fairly advanced different types of entry [into the UK] takes 18 months to two years and there isn’t time at the moment,” he said. “Customs clearance clerks are moving from one intermediary to another.”
Businesses have also expressed concerns over the coming shortage of customs brokers, who will be needed to operate a new regulatory border in the Irish Sea for goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland that must be fully operational from January 1.
The government is to spend £200m on a new Trader Support Service to help companies to complete customs paperwork, which is also now seeking to recruit staff, putting further pressure on the market.
Richard Burnett, the head of the Road Haulage Association, said that the scramble for talent was an inevitable function of a lack of resources.
“This is what happens when supply outstrips demand. Even companies who want to hire genuine new recruits need experienced hands to train them and there is just not enough time left to train them,” he said.
HM Customs & Revenue said the government had made a total of £84m available to increase customs capacity and the grant system was designed with flexibility in mind.
“We urge the sector to apply for the grants. We’re on track to have the right people in place with the right skills by the end of the transition period,” it added.