Professionalising trade: How structured learning helps the trading community grow

Fri 19 Jan 2024
Posted by: Richard Cree

Lecturer hall full of students learning

You don’t have to ask many trade experts and professionals how their career started before someone tells you a story of “sort of falling into it”. Often, it’s a variation of “the company I worked for started exporting, I took on looking after the paperwork and it grew from there”.

But for these “accidental” professionals looking to learn more, as well as younger students looking to start a career in international trade, there is another route. As powerful as learning by doing and on-the-job training can be, there’s a role for structured, classroom-based qualifications in international trade. Formal accreditation of these practically acquired skills can also demonstrate competence, and can be hugely important for many careers.

Member Monthly (MM) sat down with Dr Rebecca Wilde and Dr Di Li from WMG at Warwick University to get their take on the ways a structured degree course can help. Dr Wilde is WMG’s associate professor and head of supply chain and trade, while Dr Li is assistant professor and programme director of the WMG MSc in International Trade, Strategy and Operations (ITSO).

The WMG ITSO course is the first accredited Master’s programme in the UK accredited by IOE&IT. An interdisciplinary course, it integrates international trade, strategy and operations management within international business.

MM: What’s your role in teaching trade and customs to future professionals?

RW: As a lecturer and head of discipline, my main role is to design courses that impart knowledge of trade to aspiring professionals. I try to integrate theoretical concepts with practical insights to develop that expertise. Through engaging lectures, case studies and interactive discussions, I aim to instil critical thinking and analytical skills to help navigate complexities of international trade. I also guide students in staying up to date with industry trends, regulations and advances. I want to empower students with expertise and acumen to excel in their roles and contribute to the evolving trade landscape.

DL: As the programme director of ITSO, one of my essential responsibilities is the design and development of the programme to ensure it’s of international quality. The programme not only keeps up with cutting-edge knowledge but also covers up-to-date industry practices. We help to form a symbiotic relationship between theoretical inquiry and practical application via immersive learning.

MM: Why does teaching this subject matter?

RW: Teaching trade is pivotal, because it equips future professionals with the essential tools to navigate the intricate world of global commerce. In an era of expanding international markets, understanding trade dynamics and customs regulations is paramount. Fostering critical thinking and analytical skills ensures adaptability in a rapidly evolving field. Ultimately, the impact extends beyond individual success, contributing to the development of a skilled workforce that drives economic growth and sustainable global trade practices.

DL: I absolutely agree. Through systematic research and close engagement with industries, we have found that international trade never stands alone. A thorough knowledge and understanding of strategy and operational practicalities are essential to trade successfully. This is in line with trends in the job market, which demands and values multidisciplinary talent more than single-discipline talent. The Future of Jobs Report, produced last year by the World Economic Forum, found that graduates with the skills to cope with a rapidly changing environment are preferred.

MM: What is the main benefit of a more highly skilled population of trade experts?

RW: A pool of more highly skilled trade experts offer significant benefits to the UK economy. Enhanced expertise in trade fosters greater efficiency and effectiveness in international business transactions. Skilled trade professionals are also better equipped to navigate complex trade agreements, negotiate favourable terms and capitalise on global market trends, thereby promoting economic growth.

DL: And a more skilled workforce also contributes to innovation and competitiveness. Trade experts with advanced skills in areas such as logistics, supply chain management and regulatory compliance drive improvements in operational processes, positioning UK businesses as leaders. These talents are also the main force in enriching and extending the scope of international trade. This, in turn, attracts foreign investment and stimulates job creation, with a positive impact on the overall economy.

RW: Also, from a social perspective, a more highly skilled population of trade experts promotes knowledge transfer and the development of a robust educational ecosystem. As these experts share insights and experiences, it creates a culture of continuous learning and adaptability. Additionally, social benefits extend to improved international relations, as skilled trade professionals contribute to the development of fair and mutually beneficial trade, fostering positive diplomatic ties with other nations.

DL: A highly skilled population of trade experts is a cornerstone for economic prosperity, innovation and sustainable global engagement for the UK.

MM: Lots of people "fall into" international trade, how does a qualification help?

DL: Seeking a qualification in international trade can enhance your career, by providing a structured foundation of knowledge and skills. Formal education equips professionals with a deep understanding of international trade regulations, logistics and market dynamics. This boosts confidence in decision-making and opens doors to advanced roles and leadership positions. A recognised qualification also signals commitment and competence to employers, making individuals more competitive in the global job market.

RW: Also, ongoing learning through qualifications ensures professionals stay abreast of industry trends, fostering adaptability crucial for sustained success in international trade.

MM: How do you know how to pick the right level of qualification?

RW: Choosing the appropriate level of qualification starts from assessing existing knowledge and career goals. It's crucial to align the qualification with industry standards, considering recognised certifications from reputable institutions. Additionally, understanding the practical relevance of the curriculum and its applicability to real-world scenarios ensures a tailored and beneficial educational investment in the complex landscape of trade.

MM: Does it help when employers encourage staff to take trade qualifications? 

DL: Absolutely. When employers recognise and endorse the value of qualifications, it creates a dynamic and evolving practice. Supportive employers foster a culture of continuous learning, motivating staff to enhance their skills. This not only boosts individual confidence and competence but elevates the overall proficiency of the workforce. Encouraging qualifications demonstrates a commitment to professional development, making the organisation more attractive to skilled professionals and enhancing a sense of belonging. This mutual investment in education enhances employee performance, contributes to organisational success and ensures competitive edge in international trade.

MM: What are the typical career benefits of studying for a trade qualification? 

RW: Studying for a trade qualification enhances expertise, allowing professionals to navigate complex scenarios with confidence. Accredited qualifications provide industry recognition, making individuals more appealing to employers and opening doors to advanced roles. Increased competence also often leads to higher earning potential. And ongoing learning fosters adaptability, which is crucial in international trade. Networking opportunities during qualifications can connect individuals with industry experts and potential employers. Overall, a trade qualification serves as a catalyst for career advancement and personal growth, offering a competitive edge and contributing to long-term success.

DL: Due to the wide scope and interdisciplinary nature of business trade, a trade qualification provides graduates with expertise in a broad range of areas and good at dynamic interactions with a variety of different stakeholders domestically and overseas, preparing them for employment with a wide range of organisations, including government departments, export management companies, the consultancy industry, supply chain, transportation and logistics firms, multinational manufacturing companies, strategy and business development corporations and international marketing firms.