Government Work, Private-Sector Culture

St. Louis University grad Stephanie Bernard works for the feds as a trade facilitator. Here's a rundown of a typical day

I am an international trade specialist with the Commerce Dept.'s U.S. Commercial Service. In layman's terms, I'm a government worker.

That said, my colleagues and I are different from the stereotypical idea of government employees. Working with private sector businesses and organizations on a daily basis gives our agency a culture of hard work, problem solving, and creativity (see, 5/4/06, "Hello, Mickey").

The U.S. Commercial Service was established by Congress just over 25 years ago with the mission to assist small and midsize American companies sell their American products to foreign markets. We have offices across the U.S., called U.S. Export Assistance Centers, as well as offices in most U.S. embassies abroad.

I work in the Philadelphia center with four other trade specialists. We focus on companies in eastern Pennsylvania and in Delaware. I am responsible for assisting companies in the health care, cosmetics/toiletries, and consumer products industries.

My job is to counsel these companies regarding the export process, including financing, logistics, and documentation. I also work with our overseas offices to help the companies find partners and buyers, and get local market research and entry-strategy counseling.

A day in my life looks like this:

7:47 a.m.—Armed with my laptop, iPod, and a copy of The Da Vinci Code, I walk two blocks to the station where I'll catch the train into downtown Philadelphia and walk six blocks to my office (just next to Independence Hall).

8:35 a.m.—Once I'm settled, checking e-mail comes first. I skim the titles/senders and do a mental prioritization. I start with a note with the subject line "Product stuck in Customs." And so the morning begins.

9:20 a.m.—After getting details from the company—including port of entry, what the product is, who the freight forwarder was, and what documents or certifications foreign customs is requesting—I should have enough info to help figure some of it out.

10:15 a.m.—I'm lucky that it's still early enough to catch someone at the embassy. I spent the last hour looking through documentary requirements of the country, and the certification being requested isn't listed, which means they either don't understand what the product is or have another name for a form used by the U.S. I ask my colleagues in the country to clarify.

11:00 a.m.—I finish up with new e-mail questions—"What shipping documents do I need?" "How do I register my distributor?" "How do I register my medical device?"

12:45 p.m.—I head to El Fuego to grab lunch, bring it back to the office, and eat in the conference room.

2:30 p.m.—It's time for a conference call with the Health Care Technologies team—all of us, domestic and abroad, who work with companies in the industry. We discuss upcoming trade shows, market briefings, trade missions, and foreign and domestic industry issues.

3:30 p.m.—I review market research and Web sites for three meetings tomorrow. I'll have to MapQuest my route to all three locales.

5:30 p.m.—I submit export success—where international sales were made—and begin recording in client files what I've helped with in the past few weeks.

6:30 p.m.—I get ready for a conference call with colleagues and a client in Asia to discuss a client's trip there in three weeks.

7:20 p.m.—I leave the laptop at work and head out just in time to catch the train.

This job is extremely international and always interesting. Every day, I learn something new about a market in a foreign country, or World Trade Organization regulations, or customs laws abroad.

An undergraduate international business degree is required, although sometimes years of specialized experience can qualify you, too. I landed the position by being a volunteer intern at one of our offices, and when an opening became available, I applied.

I've learned so much on the job, but looking back at my time at St. Louis University's John Cook School of Business, I think I should have majored in a more specific skill. Although I have done fine, when I graduated I noticed there were not many job ads for international business grads, but rather accounting, finance, and marketing alumni (see, 2/12/07, "It's Not Too Late to Choose Business"). If I could change one thing about my education, I would have done international business as part of a double major or a minor.