Meet the teacher
Fee readies for 41st customs broker license prep class.
Jonathan Fee has lost count of exactly how many people he's helped prepare for the rigors of the U.S. customs broker license exam, but it's surely thousands over a period of 21 years.
While there are numerous broker license preparatory courses offered by trade associations and consulting firms, Fee's has become one of the more popular among broker and importer employees.
'I have taught the class continuously since the spring of 1989,' Fee said. 'I now have people whose parents have taken my classes.'
Fee traces his decision to start teaching the classes to a Feb. 14, 1989 letter written by D. Lynn Gordon, assistant commissioner to U.S. Customs' Office of Commercial Operations, to Arthur Litman, who was then chairman of the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America's Customs Committee. The NCBFAA was concerned that the Oct. 3, 1988 broker exam was flawed and contributed to the 3 percent pass rate. In other words, 10 out of about 800 people, who took that test, passed.
'Customs basically told the association there was nothing wrong with the exam, just the people who took it were stupid,' Fee said. 'That arrogance really charged me up, and I decided I was going to do something about it.'
The Washington-based attorney at the law firm of Alston & Bird LLP started his class in Atlanta and over the years added other cities throughout the Southeast, Washington, and New York. The course consists of lectures, document familiarization activities and practice tests spread over five Saturdays every other week leading up to the twice-a-year exams ' offered the first week of April and October.
Fee's course has evolved over the years with increasing access to live video conferencing from Alston & Bird's offices and development of online study tools. However, Fee makes it a point to personally meet and lecture before each class at least once.
Fee doesn't sugarcoat the difficulty of the broker license exam to his students, and the fact that many of them may have to take the 80-question multiple-choice test several times to achieve the 75 percent pass score.
'There's nothing wrong not passing the test first time out,' Fee said. 'There are gobs of terrific licensed brokers who took the test several times before they passed.'
Fee took the test in the mid-1990s, mostly out of respect for his students, and felt fortunate to pass it the first time.
He acknowledged that success with the exam often comes down to how good of a test-taker a person is. He finds that those individuals who are fresh out of college often have an easier time passing the exam first time than those who have worked in the industry a while.
Ken Huff, former import operations manager for Motorsports Authentics in Atlanta and one of Fee's recent students, said, 'taking the broker license exam was something I wanted to do to expand my overall knowledge of the business.'
Huff took the exam in April, but didn't pass. However, he has not allowed it to dampen his determination, and has enrolled in Fee's 41st class this summer for the next exam in October. 'The first time around was still a win-win because I learned a tremendous amount from his class,' Huff said.
Fee praised Customs and Border Protection, especially Richard Coleman, who in the mid-1990s, 'profoundly influenced the quality of the exam for the better, and the exam remains much more professionally prepared due to his efforts.'
The exam questions are written by Customs officers and are routinely reviewed based on exam results. There is also a formal process at the agency through which individuals may challenge wrong answers to exam questions.
Don Luther, a former Customs official, licensed customs broker, and executive director of 19CFR Trade Consulting, said it would be an interesting requirement for Customs Import Specialists to take and pass the broker license exam. 'Personally, I believe it would build more credibility with the people in the industry they regulate, and provide CBP with an improved understanding of how demanding a broker's job is,' he said.