Exporters Raiding Commerce Dept. for Specialists

Times Staff Writer

More and more Southern California-based firms are plunging into the export market--some by taking the Commerce Department’s advice--others by taking Commerce Department employees.

The number of trade specialists at the Commerce Department’s Los Angeles office has dwindled from about 20 in 1982 to seven, partly because some area executives have been hiring those officials to manage their corporate export efforts, according to Daniel J. Young, director of the Commerce Department district office in Los Angeles.

At the same time, Young said the demand for Commerce Department services is rising because Southland businesses are more export-oriented. “We have more (work) than we can do,” he said.

Trade specialists from the office have recently left to accept posts at an aeronautics firm, a shoe manufacturer and a software firm, Young said. State and local governments are also luring away Commerce Department trade specialists. Last week, for example, a senior trade specialist at the district office--Carlos J. Valderrama--assumed the position of director at the state of California’s trade office in Mexico City.


“We’re losing good people,” Young said. “I’m glad people are recognizing that this is a place to find talent.” But Young said he is concerned about the trend because a hiring policy imposed in 1987 allows district offices to fill vacancies by luring personnel from other Commerce Department offices but prohibits hiring new job candidates.

Offer Many Services

The freeze is part of an effort to contain costs. While the weaker dollar makes U.S. products more affordable abroad, the cost of maintaining the 122 Commerce Department offices in foreign countries rises, Young explained. Young said it is difficult to recruit from other Commerce Department offices because there are about 75 trade-related vacancies in 49 domestic Commerce Department offices.

Commerce Department officials in the United States and abroad provide counseling, arrange informational seminars on trade, organize trade shows abroad and help companies find agents and partners abroad.

Companies covet Commerce Department specialists because they are familiar with trade laws, tariffs and the distribution systems abroad and can provide marketing strategies, Young said. Some specialists are willing to leave because companies generally offer higher pay.

The growing interest in trade is reflected in the export volumes for the Los Angeles Customs District, which includes the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, Port Hueneme and Los Angeles International Airport. District exports in 1988 totaled $32 billion, an 35% increase. Exports in 1987 amounted to $23.7 billion, up 19.1% over 1986. In contrast, imports in the district were $56 billion in 1988, a rise of only 3.9%.

Talent in Demand

Southland exports and the demand for trade specialists will continue to rise, according to Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

“People with backgrounds in public relations, law, accounting, transportation--people who can apply expertise in those areas to work on the harmonization of trade will be in demand,” he said.

The rising demand for trade specialists in the Southland is a sign that more companies are realizing that they need some expertise to export successfully, according to Jack Nadel, head of the Los Angeles-based Measured Marketing Services, a marketing consultant that also exports products abroad.

With more than 40 years experience in the export field, Nadel can look back and give a lighthearted account of an exchange with an Italian government official about his fitful effort to sell pens and pencils in Italy in 1976.

“We were,” Nadel recalled, “losing money, interest rates were too high, we were servicing too high a debt. On top of that, this official calls to tell us we were breaking the law.

“I told him,” Nadel continued, “that I didn’t know losing money was illegal.”

Nadel said he voluntarily closed the Italian operation for financial reasons six months after the telephone call. He said he had violated a commercial code out of ignorance. In retrospect, ignorance of the law was no excuse, Nadel said.

Discourages Exports

“If I had done the research or if the (U.S.) Commerce Department had told us about these laws, this might not have happened,” Nadel said. “I should have gone to the Commerce Department . . . and asked, ‘What are the rules?’ ”

Ignorance of foreign trade rules and the fear of losses are major reasons many small and medium-sized U.S. companies do not export their products, according to Nadel, author of “Passport to Prosperity--Tales of a Yankee Trader.” Nadel said he wrote the book to encourage firms to cultivate foreign markets while the U.S. dollar is weaker and the cost of U.S. goods abroad is cheaper.

“The biggest problem is ignorance,” Nadel said. “The Commerce Department can help companies export. There are many kinds of help at Commerce. For example, they can help you find distributors abroad.”

The Commerce Department should consider the growing interest in trade in the Southland and other regions and find a way to hire more trade specialists, according to Nadel.

“It’s one of the best ways government can spend money,” he said. “Correcting the trade deficit is one of the best ways of reducing the (federal) budget deficit. Small and medium-sized businesses create most new jobs, and these are companies that should be made aware of the opportunities.”