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Companies Look For Workarounds To Avoid Trump's Tariffs As Trade War Grinds On


With no end in sight for the president's trade war, companies are beginning to make lasting changes. Some are turning to tariff engineering. This involves looking for ways to redesign their products or restructure their supply chains in an effort to reduce import taxes. The process is complicated, but it's creating a whole new category of jobs, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Nearly $60 billion worth of cargo passes through the Port of Baltimore each year. Twenty-foot shipping containers are stacked high at the port terminal. The road vibrates under a line of trucks waiting to haul the containers away. For more than a century, Margie Shapiro and her family have worked as customs brokers at the port. Her grandfather started the business, shipping wheat to a hungry Europe in the midst of World War I.

MARGIE SHAPIRO: It's such a messy business that there are always problems. So to have experts on board to manage them is essential.

HORSLEY: Shapiro helps clients with the sometimes complicated business of shipping, tracking and warehousing cargo as it moves across the ocean to a customer. Ever since President Trump launched his trade war, she's been equally busy navigating the rough seas of tariff regulation.

SHAPIRO: Our job really has been education and navigation, recognizing the opportunities that are available and the strategies that are available to try to address unexpected surprises.

HORSLEY: Importers can sometimes avoid a tariff by making small changes to a product - something as simple, perhaps, as removing a lightbulb from a lamp, then putting it back once the product's here in the U.S. They can also try to time shipments to beat a tariff deadline, but that only makes sense if the tariff savings outweigh the express shipping charges and the extra cost of warehousing a product in this country until it's needed.

Now that the Trump administration is threatening tariffs on virtually everything the U.S. buys from China, some companies are looking to shift production to other countries, such as Vietnam. Shapiro says rebuilding a supply chain like that is a major undertaking and not something you can do overnight.

SHAPIRO: There's a lot of relationships that need to be established, and every port is not as developed as China is. So even getting cargo out of India or Vietnam, the lead time is different, so there's a lot of homework to be done.

HORSLEY: To help with that work, Shapiro is hiring. She's advertising for an import regulatory specialist, and she's not alone. Research director Martha Gimbel of the Indeed Hiring Lab has seen a noticeable spike in help-wanted ads for both tariff and supply chain experts since the beginning of the year.

MARTHA GIMBEL: On a net basis, the trade war has absolutely not been good for the job market, but it is great for trade lawyers.

HORSLEY: Some of the job listings specify tariff compliance. Gimbel says that's not necessarily where companies would like to put their resources, but they're growing resigned to the idea that the trade war is not going away.

GIMBEL: Any time that the economic situation is becoming more complicated or more volatile, companies who figure out how to take advantage of that are going to move ahead.

HORSLEY: AA Metals in Orlando is advertising for a trade compliance coordinator to help the company shop for imported aluminum. Chief Operating Officer Don Lawson says what used to be a simple supply chain has been scrambled by the president's tariffs, and that shows no sign of settling down.

DON LAWSON: The growing joke in our industry is, we're just waiting on the next tweet.

HORSLEY: That's a challenge even for shipping veterans. At Shapiro's office in Baltimore, a vice president describes the atmosphere as organized chaos. Margie Shapiro interrupts to say, yeah, but we thrive on that.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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