This article was published before we became the Chartered Institute of Export & International Trade on 10 July 2024, and this is reflected in references to our old brand and name. For more information about us becoming Chartered, visit our dedicated webpage on the change here.

students on results day

As a fresh round of exam results are announced and debates about the value of a degree rumble on, the Daily Update speaks to three members of Institute of Export and International Trade’s (IOE&IT) team to hear their own career stories. And spoiler alert: none took the conventional university route.

Today (24 August) sees the release of the first GCSE results following a return to pre-pandemic external marking, with an entirely expected drop in grades. Pass marks fell 5% from last year, decreasing from 73.2% to 68.2%. This follows a return to pre-pandemic marking, after teacher-awarded lockdown grades inflated pass marks.

In addition to this year’s results, disillusionment from the educational disruption caused by Covid-19, plus a rise in the cost of living, have led some students to question the value of a traditional university education.

As students reflect on their results and work out future educational paths and longer-term career plans, three members of IOE&IT’s team explain their own routes into a career in export and international trade and how none of them took the well-worn university path.

University alternative

Matt Vick, trade and customs specialist at IOE&IT, decided that university wasn’t the right choice for him. He said:

“For a lot of young people, university is often viewed as the only pathway to a successful and rewarding career.

“For me personally, I initially also believed university would be my only option – having completed A-levels, it was touted by my school as really the only option.

“So I went to university, but within three months I knew it wasn’t for me and dropped out.

Initially unsure of which career direction to take, a chance opportunity to move into freight forwarding enabled his career to go from strength to strength. Vick recalls:

“I came home to Cornwall, and by a chance meeting in a Post Office, was able to secure an interview for a freight forwarding company which, if I am completely honest, was an industry I knew absolutely nothing about prior to this opportunity.

“That seems true of a lot of people I speak to; logistics is a crucial but sometimes invisible lifeblood for the world. And there are huge opportunities for establishing a career.

“My time in freight forwarding was a fast-paced, challenging and fulfilling role and anyone who really takes an interest has the chance to learn a lot through exposure to several key areas – shipping, supply chain management, accounting, team building and, of course, the wide world of customs.”

Opening doors

Marcel Landau, IOE&IT Vice Chair and IOE Foundation Chairman, has built an exporting career spanning six decades. He empathises with today’s GCSE cohort, having been less than pleased with his own exam results. Landau said:

“School and I never really got on, I suffered through school. My exam results were not exactly anything I'd ever want published.

“However, I've always been quite good at languages and I enjoy travel. I was very fortunate that someone offered me a job in an international trading company, which gave me the opportunity to use the languages and see a bit of the world.”

Real-life applications

Reflecting on his education in relation to work, Landau says it wasn’t until he’d entered exporting that much of what he’d failed to engage with at school began to resonate. He adds:

“I realised why I needed to know maths; because if I didn't know some maths, I couldn't work out how many boxes went on a palette, and what went into the hold of a ship.

“You needed geography because there was no point being an exporter if you didn't know where Berlin or Accra, Auckland or New York were.

“And there was also no point talking to various people in different countries if you couldn't relate and have some relevant history about those countries.”

Never a dull moment

Like Vick and Landau, Vicky Payne, technical director at IOE&IT’s academy, also describes “falling into trade”. She also considers herself fortunate to have found the perfect industry.

When asked what the biggest misconception about trade is, Payne doesn’t hesitate:

“That it’s boring. But most people working in trade would agree that, actually, every day is different. In my experience, it's been very varied. It's not a monotonous job.

“Even if you did data entry every day, if you start at that level, things change constantly and you have to apply new knowledge.

“Everything that happens around the world has an impact. For example, with the wildfires at the moment; you might be trading with Greece, so how do you handle that? Everything can have implications on your goods.

“It also means you're always learning something, because policy is always changing, so you're constantly developing.”

‘A long-term career’

Continual development means trade satisfies two of the most important career criteria for Generation Z: pay and security. Completing education during the instability of the Covid pandemic and numerous financial crises, means career priorities have shifted towards building transferrable, in-demand skills.

Payne says trade offers this and more:

“It's a long-term career if you get into the right space and you're interested in it. Trade could open more doors for young people. If they understand it, then they can go into a business and really sell themselves across any function.

“That means there's a lot of avenues as well; you can get into military goods, find a specialism in food or go down the pharmaceuticals route.

“In the past year, there’s also been work helping with Ukraine and the charitable movement of goods, so you've also got the humanitarian side of it, too.”

Find out more

IOE&IT’s academy offers a range of qualifications from level 3 certificates in the basics of international trade through to level 5 diplomas designed to cultivate specialist knowledge.