The U.S. customs broker license exam is difficult enough without having to take the four-and-a-half-hour test in subpar conditions, the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America (NCBFAA) told Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in recent feedback.
The NCBFAA recently commented on the testing conditions of the Oct. 17 customs brokers license exam that was held at Pearson Vue test centers throughout the country.
“The CBLE (customs broker license exam) is an important opportunity for these people to advance their careers and improve their lives,” the NCBFAA wrote to CBP in a letter. “It is critical that CBP address these issues and improve the process for future exams.”
CBP holds the test twice a year — spring and fall — and assesses a $390 application fee.
“Many applicants have invested significant resources, both in terms of money spent to apply and prepare for the exam and time spent studying,” the NCBFAA said.
The association’s leadership has become increasingly upset by the conditions at the test sites and the way applicants are treated before and during the exams.
“There needs to be a predictable and appropriate setting for the test taker,” said Mary Jo Muoio, chair of the NCBFAA’s Customs Committee. “This is a very high-pressure exam.”
It is estimated that of the 1,200 applicants who take the customs broker license exam only 10 to 20% pass. Most people do not pass the exam on their first try and resort to taking it multiple times, Muoio said.
Lack of desk space, excessive security
The biggest complaint from those NCBFAA members whose employees took the Oct. 17 test was the lack of desk space at the test sites.
The 80-question exam requires applicants to refer to printed versions of the U.S. Harmonized Tariff Schedules (HTS) and the Customs regulations, which combined are seven to eight inches thick.
“The standard cubicle that was provided by the Pearson Vue testing service was considerably smaller and was largely consumed by the computer that was set up within the cubicle,” the NCBFAA said.
The association added, “Most applicants were forced to put their reference materials on the floor and flip back and forth as they worked through the test.”
The NCBFAA has previously suggested to CBP that each test taker be provided six linear feet of desk space to accommodate their reference materials.
The association said the second biggest concern to come out of the latest customs broker exam regarded the physical treatment of applicants by Pearson Vue security staff during check-in.
“Applicants were required to unbutton shirts, roll up their sleeves, turn in hair ties, shake out their hair, turn their waistbands inside out, remove jewelry (including non-smart wristwatches) and permit the proctors to scan their eyeglasses,” the NCBFAA said.
Those who took restroom breaks during the exam were subject to the same physical inspections as they returned to their desks, the association added.
“We question the need for such rigorous security and urge CBP to instruct Pearson [Vue] to adjust its screening process,” the NCBFAA said. “To the extent that these screening procedures will be in place for the next exam, Pearson [Vue] should be required to update their online orientation videos to show the students exactly what to expect on test day.”
Complaints also surfaced about the format of the exam itself.
“Past examinations featured questions that were grouped by category and a drop menu that allowed students to group questions together as they saw fit,” the NCBFAA said. “Applicants commented that they found it very confusing and time consuming to flip back and forth between different sections of the regulations rather than being able to focus on a particular subject before moving on to the next section.”
The NCBFAA said that exam reportedly involved occasional “question stacking.” Thus, if one fails to get the first question right, the other answers will also be wrong. CBP had previously committed to eliminate this style of questioning, the association said.
However, the NCBFAA called CBP’s inclusion of the applicant’s answers at the end of the test a “positive development” and asked the agency to continue this practice going forward.
Getting back on track
Renata Pearson, president of San Carlos, California-based CCRA — Customs Compliance/Regulatory Affairs who has taught customs broker license exam preparation classes for nearly 20 years, said she was “appalled” at the way CBP’s third-party test centers handled the Oct. 17 exam.
Individuals who dedicate themselves to preparing for the customs broker license exam spend thousands of dollars on classroom instruction or self-study programs. “They give up a huge amount of time from their lives to do this,” she said.
“People said they felt like they were entering a prison,” Pearson said. “Customs did not do a good job at vetting the test services provider nor training them on how to handle the proctoring of the exam.”
Judy Haggin, another longtime customs broker license test instructor and senior director of compliance at Portland, Oregon-based Total Logistics Resource, described the reaction of her students who took the recent exam as “downtrodden.”
In 2013, CBP established a group of test instructors, which became known as the Educator Team, to collaborate and provide input on recommendations for the customs brokers license exams.
During a CBP trade symposium several years ago, Pearson recommended to the acting commissioner of the agency that officers with two to three years on the job should take the customs broker exam themselves. “It would improve the overall quality of the test,” she said.
In collaborating with the Broker Management Branch, the Educators Team is proposing a face-to-face meeting with CBP in Washington, D.C. “We want to collaborate with Customs to improve exam conditions, create an outstanding experience and produce qualified licensed individuals,” she said.
Haggin said, “I don’t have an issue with the 20% pass rate and it being a hard test. But a test designed for failure is not right.”
Beyond the license
This year CBP has expressed interest in raising the overall professional standards for the estimated 14,454 active licensed customs brokers in the U.S.. These entities work on behalf of importers to enter goods arriving in the U.S., as well as facilitate the payment of duties, taxes and fees to CBP.
CBP regulations currently require customs brokers to pay periodic fees to maintain their licenses and conduct customs business, either as sole brokers, brokerage houses or as part of a company that imports goods into the country. Continuing education requirements have not been required by the agency.
NCBFAA has endorsed continuing education for licensed customs brokers. For the past 14 years, the NCBFAA Educational Institute (NEI) has offered its members a Certified Customs Specialist Program that provides online courses, webinars, annual global trade education conferences and access to many trade-related educational partners dealing with international trade.
In late September, CBP announced that it will form a task force to establish a continuing education framework for licensed customs brokers that could become a regulatory requirement.
The agency said it will develop the framework through a work group with participants from CBP, the customs broker industry, members of the Commercial Customs Operations Advisory Committee (COAC) and additional industry experts as needed.