Facing the Future: East Coast Trade Symposium looks ahead to attain economic competitiveness
When U.S. Customs and Border Protection hosted its East Coast Trade Symposium in Baltimore Nov. 4-5, the focus was on progress. How much progress has been made in transforming the agency’s trade processes to prepare for the future? Will automation, the single window, data harmonization, and other modernization initiatives speed-up the global supply chain at our borders?
After years of building a framework to expedite the flow of U.S. trade to increase economic competitiveness, CBP welcomed more than 500 members of the trade community to explore the future challenges and opportunities evolving within the trade world at the two-day event, “Transforming Global Trade.”
In his opening remarks, CBP Commissioner R.Gil Kerlikowske underscored his commitment to completing a U.S. government-wide single window cargo processing system that will expedite the flow of U.S. imports and exports. He also pledged to complete CBP’s cargo processing system, the Automated Commercial Environment, or ACE. “There is nothing that is taking more of my time along with security issues than ACE and the Single Window,” said the Commissioner. “We are absolutely 100 percent focused on ACE and its successful completion and integration.”
Among the many symposium sessions was a panel discussion that explored the concept of borders reimagined. “Globalization is challenging traditional boundaries,” said Deborah Augustin, CBP’s acting executive director of the ACE Business Office, who moderated the panel. “Growing partnerships and the technology information exchange are driving new ways to envision our borders.”
Panelist, Norm Schenk, UPS vice president of global customs policy and public affairs, said, “Looking ahead, looking around the world in terms of all countries, there is a common theme: Good border facilitation leads to economic growth for all.”
Using that as his guiding principle, Schenk explained that it’s important to develop programs that are flexible to change. “For example, just think about e-commerce,” he said. “E-commerce didn’t exist several years ago. Now, it’s a huge part of global trade. Unfortunately, most of the customs administrations don’t even understand what e-commerce is, so we’re playing catch-up.”
Schenk also noted that from a global perspective, the key driver for all customs administrations is advanced cargo shipment data. “The more we can do related to providing advanced data is going to help pave the way for better facilitation without compromising security,” he said.
In another session, CBP’s top leadership shared their views on how the global supply chain is changing. Brenda Smith, assistant commissioner of CBP’s Office of International Trade, identified her top four priorities as: simplifying processes, effective use of information, sharpening trade expertise, and CBP’s enforcement mission.
In terms of simplifying processes, Smith said, “We want to make sure that the way we do business matches the way the private sector does business. It makes trade easy, yet accomplishes what we need to do to keep the United States safe.”
On sharpening the agency’s trade expertise, Smith said, “We have so many individuals who are charged with making decisions about cargo…Those individuals can’t work with the private sector and conduct our mission unless they are very smart about what we do. And so, we need to make a greater investment in that expertise.”
Todd Owen, assistant commissioner of CBP’s Office of Field Operations, shared his two biggest operational concerns pertaining to the global supply chain. The first is e-commerce. “The workload that is being added to our air cargo operations, express consignment facilities, and international mail facilities is becoming overwhelming. We need to focus more on staffing to make sure that we can meet the needs of the e-commerce industry as that continues to grow,” said Owen.
The second concern is the infrastructure at the ports. “We are working in some very outdated facilities,” said Owen, especially at the seaports and land borders. “We are working in facilities that cannot accommodate the security mission that we have today.”
Owen also pointed out the strategic design of CBP’s supply chain programs. “Too often we look at these programs as stand-alone initiatives,” he said. “We talk about C-TPAT, the Container Security Initiative, the Centers of Excellence and Expertise, and the Trusted Trader program. But I think it’s important that we realize that these are not stand-alone programs,” said Owen. “These programs really represent a continuum of security and compliance activities that, when functioning properly, lead to greater benefits for the government, stakeholders, and internationally.”
Another panel discussion offered a North American perspective on customs issues. The panel, which featured CBP Commissioner Kerlikowske and the Administrator General of Mexican Customs Ricardo Treviño, was led by Ana Hinojosa, the acting deputy assistant commissioner of CBP’s Office of International Trade, who is the incoming director of compliance and facilitation for the World Customs Organization.
Hinojosa opened the discussion by sharing statistics from a U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey that evaluated the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, after 20 years. “After 20 years of our trilateral work together, trade with both Canada and Mexico has significantly increased. In fact, the volume of trade among the North American countries has more than tripled,” said Hinojosa. “The volume of trade has exceeded over a trillion dollars and there are millions of jobs throughout North America that are specifically connected to supporting trade among our three countries.”
A key ingredient of the success is data harmonization. “Harmonization of information is one of the most important initiatives in facilitating trade among countries. It could even be the most important initiative regarding trade among the NAFTA region,” said Treviño. “This is one of many examples that shows that the NAFTA region is really working together.”
The symposium’s agenda also featured notable speakers such as Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Robert Holleyman, who spoke about the significance of the proposed free trade agreements—the Trans-Pacific Partnership, TTP, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, T-TIP. “For those of us who care about trade, this is one of the most exciting times in history,” said Holleyman. “We have an agenda that reflects not just the challenges of trade in the past, but the opportunities of trade in the future.” On Thursday, the day after Holleyman spoke, the text of the 12-nation Pacific Rim TTP pact was made public.
A number of breakout sessions were held on the second day of the Trade Symposium. One of the panel discussions focused on trade enforcement and keeping the economy safe. “There’s been a new emphasis on trade law enforcement in recent years and an improved cooperation among CBP, Homeland Security Investigations/ICE, and the Commerce Department, which is really essential to our mission,” said Timothy Brightbill, an international trade attorney and partner at law firm Wiley Rein which represents domestic companies and industries in trade remedy cases. “These laws are extremely important to our industries. They set the rules of international trade and trade practices and many times they are what keeps the industry alive,” he said.
“The work that CBP is doing every day is helping with that,” Brightbill added. “It’s contributing to expanding U.S. exports, it’s helping U.S. industries grow, and in some cases helping to obtain new business. Of course, that only happens if the laws are properly enforced.”
One of the most popular sessions was on the Centers of Excellence and Expertise, one of CBP’s trade transformation initiatives. The 10 industry-specific centers represent CBP’s new operating model for trade processing. “When we initially joined the center, we weren’t quite sure what the benefits were going to be. We didn’t know what to expect,” said Caroline Weletz, a senior trade compliance specialist at Bayer International Trade Services Corporation.
“What we found is an unexpected benefit. When we call the center, someone answers our questions right away, and we’re reaching someone from customs who specifically understands our business. Being a variety of businesses from seeds to pharmaceuticals to over-the-counter medications, we really needed to find someone within CBP who understands what we we’re doing,” said Weletz. “Now, granted every question we have isn’t answered immediately, but usually we get the answer within 24 hours, which is quite a change from where we were two or three years ago.”
Many of those who attended the symposium said they found it worthwhile. “I’ve been coming to these events for about five years now. It helps me keep up with what’s going on with the trade community and I can get a better understanding of updates, especially with ACE,” said Deborah Pineda, a customs specialist at Wahl Clipper Corporation, a manufacturer of personal hair clippers, trimmers, shavers, and massagers, based in Sterling, Illinois.
For first-time attendee Leanne Thompson, a new trade and regulatory coordinator at American Eagle Outfitter, a Pittsburgh-based clothing retailer, the symposium was an introduction to working with customs. “By coming and learning the new technologies that everyone is using, I think I will be able to more quickly flow into my job and assist the company better,” she said.
Kim Campbell, a broker with Mkmarin Trade Services in Markham, Ontario, also was a first time attendee at the Trade Symposium. Campbell, who is the chairwoman of the Canadian Society of Customs Brokers based in Ottawa, wanted to learn more about CBP’s trade strategy and vision. She also wanted to network with American peers. “It’s important to build relationships so I can better serve my members in my role as chair and my clients who are trading across both sides of the border,” said Campbell, who was recently asked to be part of CBP’s North American Single Window Working Group. “I’d like to see how we can actually come together as a region—Canada, the United States, and Mexico—with one common process, so goods could move through all three borders with only one data set, one data transmission,” she said. “That would really help us compete as an emerging economic region in the world.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection is the unified border agency within the Department of Homeland Security charged with the management, control and protection of our nation's borders at and between the official ports of entry. CBP is charged with keeping terrorists and terrorist weapons out of the country while enforcing hundreds of U.S. laws.