There’s a global shortage of trade negotiators – but here’s how Whitehall can get the team it needs for Brexit

Negotiating fresh trade deals in the wake of Britain's departure from the European Union will be a mammoth task – and the civil service must step up its efforts to assemble the right team of experts for the job, says headhunter David Archer


By David Archer

15 Jul 2016

As a headhunter working in international trade and investments, I understand what it takes to build a cohesive team when the skill sets required are difficult to find. While I'm not a negotiator myself, I felt compelled to write this article as I care about my country and genuinely believe that the UK can be greater – provided that we are able to lock down trade deals that are in our best interests. There are, however, a number of challenges in building up the UK's trade negotiations team.

Britain hasn't had to negotiate at an international level since 1973, due to our handing of that function over to the European Union. World trade deals are multifarious – the United States' The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with the Pacific Rim meant reaching agreement on over 18,000 pieces of tax legislation in multiple countries. And the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – the proposed trade agreement between the European Union and the US – is already on round 13 of the negotiations, and will likely close in 2020.

Some of the deals we will encounter will also be as complex. But there simply isn't the available manpower globally to fulfil this momentous task. The UK will need to be more creative with how it goes about building a platform that will deliver results. A lack of creativity will slow the process down, as the pool of negotiators will need to be far-reaching and diverse.


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As well as using the existing pipeline of negotiators known to us, a handful of the 50 or so UK nationals in the EU actually working on trade deals, contacting ex-civil service staff, and working with some of the New Zealand trade team responsible for talks in China, we will need to fully engage with the private sector.

"The civil service needs a recruitment team with a clear vision, strategy and structure"

As a start, the civil service needs to set up a recruitment team that is dedicated to seeking out and making new hires. This will need to be a team with a clear vision, strategy and structure – and one that has experience of proactively nurturing an interest in a passive candidate marketplace. The search for negotiators will be both wide and deep, so each team member will need to be given a specific geographical remit.

It's going to be a complex, labour-intensive task, as many of the experts required will fly under the radar and the process will entail a great deal of networking. The team will also need to operate on a 24/7 basis to factor in different time zones. This will mean a unique change of mind-set for the team in relation to Whitehall working hours, and the civil service will have to adapt. Exceptional times call for exceptional measures. The only alternative to this would be to outsource the process, with the overall head of the unit being a civil servant, that way creating a directly accountable unit with a footing in Whitehall.

"Get going immediately"

Timeframes are also paramount. It will take six to twelve months to create anything approaching the kind of team that we need, and the path to building this will be fraught with problems. The demand for the best trade negotiators is outstripping supply by a long way. Using LinkedIn as the litmus test for supply, there are only 600 trade negotiators globally, and only 40 are currently in London. We can expect this number to double in real terms as only 50% of the community will actively use social media.

"The available pool of negotiators will be shallow"

There will have to be an immediate push to recruit these people, as many will be tied up on existing contract negotiations elsewhere and will likely have to serve notice. A large percentage of these will currently be signed into fixed-term contracts and will not be able to leave until their current negotiation is completed. This can take years. A large number will not be able to work on behalf of the UK, as current ongoing negotiations elsewhere may create a conflict of interest. On this basis, it is clear that the available pool of negotiators will be shallow.

The skills required for a trade negotiator are also quite unique – they must possess a strong cultural understanding of the markets in which they hope to reach a deal, and will also need a strong local reach. It is always beneficial to have a warm network, as these contacts will be helpful when it comes to the actual talks and opening doors. There are many junior negotiators – but they will lack the technical expertise for such a complex task, and trade representatives who sit at the top of the hierarchy are even more difficult to find.

However the process shapes up, it will need to need to get going immediately, and the civil service must realise the difficulties and challenges that the UK will face in hiring these individuals. To ratchet up the process I believe that the search will need to a mix of head-hunting and the use of proactive recruiters, building the network to ensure that the UK has scoured the global market.

The timeframes involved will undoubtedly vary. But a strong head hunter – or more likely head hunters – would be required to map the market in each region, something that could take four to eight weeks. That will mean producing an in-depth list and organogram of each region based on who has worked on every trade deal in the target countries and regions. Contact will then need to be made through a winding route of networking which can take several weeks to produce results.

Once this meeting has taken place, negotiations of packages are likely to be spread over three months or so. We are now four-and-half months down the line. Factoring in notice periods, that could mean start date of up to seven months after the search was initiated. Clearly, if Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is triggered too early, the two-year period will have been well eaten into. We need to get out of the blocks on time.

I believe the economics and the strength of the trade deals we strike will be driven by the experience and ability of the negotiations team. So an orderly approach will be needed in building the team the UK needs to get the right outcome. Get the foundations right – and the rest will fall into place.

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