Few people could have known sooner than Tom Teofilo that the tide has begun to turn in favor of U.S. exports--and with it new jobs in foreign trade. Teofilo's job is to try to keep the six freighters operated by Korean Shipping, the freighter line he represents in Long Beach, as full as possible--outbound as well as inbound.
"We're about two-thirds inbound and one-third outbound," Teofilo said.
The nation's trade deficit, which for the first seven months of the year is running at an annual rate of $168.7 billion, up from $156.2 billion last year, is mirrored in the current job market, said Laurie Hunter, government relations specialist with the International Business Assn. of Southern California. Consequently, most Southland trade jobs today involve imports, not exports.
"You can see it in the full containers coming in and the empty containers going out," Hunter said. As the trade balance shifts and more of Teofilo's ships head out full, new jobs will continue to be created. But, as the trade figures indicate, imports also are growing, suggesting a continuing demand for jobs in both importing and--increasingly--exporting.
Last year, 110 million tons of cargo flowed through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, most of it inbound, and California itself represents the world's seventh-largest trading nation, said Charles Nevil, president of Meridian Group, an export management company and a member of the California State World Trade Commission.
"The numbers are not distinct," Nevil said, "but something like one out of every five or 10 jobs in the state relates to trade, but that trade has basically been import trade."
Nonetheless, the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce already counts 225,000 jobs as directly related to international trade, chief economist Jack Kyser said. These include jobs like Teofilo's, moving ships in and out of the ports, plus all the related work--loading, unloading and servicing freighters and transporting cargo to them, inspecting incoming freight for customs, and documenting and forwarding shipments. There will also be an increased need for brokers, bankers, lawyers and other such "facilitators" who can match producers in one country with distributors in another.
"We had very rapid growth in trade employment in 1984 and 1985 as shipping volume surged," Kyser said. "Then, in 1986, there was a definite slowdown (in trade) but an increase of 7,000 jobs. This year we are running 6% ahead of a year ago, and export volume is starting to build.
"It's hard to say yet what that will mean in terms of employment," he said, "but in export you need intermediaries and others familiar with the overseas markets, especially for smaller shippers."
Nevil predicted that export-trade employment alone will increase as much as 20% over the next decade, adding that both exports and imports should grow.
Exporters equally skilled in importation are a rare breed, Nevil said. "I haven't met anyone in 26 years in this business who is equally good at both. What I know how to do is ship things out , and if I were to shift to import I would have to hire some different specialists. The mentality is really different."
In addition, said Joan Rollins, whose Long Beach firm, Rollins & Associates, fills international trade and transportation jobs from the entry level to the executive suite, it takes time to master the intricacies of exportation.
"The knowledge a company needs to begin exporting can be frightening at first," she explained, "so there has been no immediate turnaround because of the change in (currency) exchange rates. A successful U.S. company will not necessarily be skilled abroad. It may also lack top people in that field and have to hire consultants or management with that experience."
Obviously, language skills are valuable, but over the last decade Rollins has seen a shift away from a need for Spanish, stemming from the warfare, political unrest and debt problems that has caused trade with Central and Latin America to decline (although a limited comeback has taken place in a few countries over the past two years, she said).
On the other hand, trade with the Far East has greatly increased, and for the foreseeable future, at least, Rollins expects Mandarin Chinese and Japanese to continue to command top priority as second languages. "Our trade partners have great respect for anyone who has taken the time and effort to use their language," she said.
(Yet, Nevil noted, "there are only 200 U.S. businessmen based in Japan who can speak Japanese. Have you ever seen a Japanese businessman in this country who doesn't speak English?" he asked.)
A second language is valuable not only in itself but for what it teaches about another culture, Rollins said. Knowledge of a foreign society's ways--knowing about such taboos as not crossing legs or showing a shoe bottom--can be crucial to success in business abroad.