A great export skills shortage

Tom Welsh
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THE latest figures on Britain’s trade deficit are, on the face of it, broadly positive. From March to April 2013, the seasonably-adjusted monthly deficit dropped from £3.2bn to £2.6bn. Although we mustn’t get too excited (exports actually fell by 1.3 per cent – imports just fell faster – and monthly figures tend to be volatile), they are still a reminder that UK companies do manage to sell some products and services abroad. Indeed, net exports of mechanical machinery were £7.9bn in 2012, with toilet and cleansing products bringing in a further £1.9bn net.

These stats do, however, lend credibility to a report released today by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC). It studied 4,500 of its members and found that, while an increasing proportion are exporting, many of the smallest businesses still fail to engage with global markets.

Why? First, many companies don’t feel they have a product worth exporting. That may be true in some cases, but the sharp drop in the percentage saying this (from 76 per cent in 2012 to 58 per cent today) suggests some firms are still guilty of a lack of imagination.

Second came a shortage of commercial export knowledge, felt disproportionately by small and micro-businesses. The BCC recommends putting these skills at the core of business education – a little late for companies already trading. But there are other ways of better understanding the practicalities of export. UKTI – often maligned – has useful information on its website, alongside a web of professional advisers able to explore your company’s export potential. Its sub-site opentoexport.com also advertises overseas contracts for tender. The Greek government, for example, is currently looking for bids to supply 1m plastic laminating sheets for ID cards.

But most interestingly, the BCC found many firms unwilling to export because of language barriers. This is important. Nearly a fifth of those that judged themselves “likely to consider” exporting saw language as a block to entering markets (Russia and China being particularly problematic). The implication is clear – if you want to take advantage of export opportunities, you better brush up on a foreign language.

Tom Welsh is business features editor at City A.M. @TWWelsh