Freight forwarding reduces the stress of international shipping. It's an ideal role for an IT-literate graduate in business, geography or languages
A freight forwarder is an agent who acts on behalf of importers, exporters or other companies to organise the safe, efficient and cost-effective transportation of goods.
You'll use computer systems to arrange the best means of transport, taking into account the type of goods and the customer's delivery requirements. You'll use the services of shipping lines, airlines and road and rail freight operators.
In some cases, the freight forwarding company itself provides the service.
Companies vary in size and type, from those operating on a national and international basis to smaller, more specialised firms, which deal with particular types of goods or operate within particular geographical areas.
Activities vary depending on the type and size of employer but typically include:
- investigating and planning the most appropriate route for a shipment, taking into account the perishable or hazardous nature of goods, cost, transit time and security
- arranging appropriate packing, taking into account the climate, terrain, weight, cost and nature of goods and also the delivery and warehousing of goods at their final destination
- negotiating contracts, transportation and handling costs
- obtaining, checking and preparing documentation to meet customs and insurance requirements, packing specifications, and compliance with other countries' regulations and fiscal regimes
- offering consolidation services by air, sea and road, ensuring cost-effective and secure solutions to small shippers who have insufficient cargo to require their own dedicated units
- arranging insurance and assisting the client in the event of a claim
- offering tailored IT solutions and electronic data interchange (EDI) connections
- arranging payment of freight and other charges or collection of payment on behalf of the client
- utilising e-commerce, internet technology and satellite systems to enable real-time tracking of goods
- arranging air transport for urgent and high-value freight and managing the risk door-to-door
- acting as broker in customs negotiations worldwide to guide the freight efficiently through complex procedures
- dealing with special arrangements for transporting delicate cargoes, such as livestock, food and medical supplies
- arranging courier and specialist hand-carry services
- maintaining communication and control through all phases of the journey, including the production of management reports and statistical and unit-cost analysis
- maintaining current knowledge of relevant legislation, political situations and other factors that could affect the movement of freight.
At more senior levels, the role may also involve managing staff and overseeing activities within a department or specialising in a particular area, such as sea freight or air freight.
- Starting salaries are in the region of £16,000 to £25,000. With experience, this can progress to between £28,000 and £30,000.
- At a middle management level, freight forwarders can earn £30,000 to £35,000, with this increasing to £35,000 to £45,000 at senior management level.
Employers may also offer additional benefits such as a bonus scheme, company car and pension scheme.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours are typically 35 to 40 hours per week. You may be required to do some shift work as some large freight forwarders provide 24-hour, 365-day cover.
Flexible working is sometimes required to cover clients' needs.
What to expect
- The work is mainly office based. Opportunities tend to be concentrated in transport centres, such as ports, airports and rail terminals and along major road networks. Offices are usually situated close to industrial areas.
- Self-employment or freelance work (including consultancy) is possible once you have gained significant experience. There are many small single-office firms dealing with clients in local and niche areas with a particular type of commodity or form of transport.
- The dress code is normally smart as you may be meeting clients, but business casual is acceptable in the office.
- The working environment can be stressful, as much of the work is aimed at meeting tight delivery deadlines.
- Travel within the working day and absence from home overnight are rare.
- In larger firms of freight forwarders, opportunities to travel or work overseas are becoming more frequent for experienced staff. The ability to speak a foreign language is an advantage and can be a key factor in selecting a candidate to work in an overseas location.
Not all employers require candidates to have a degree, with some preferring you to have practical experience in a related area.
However, obtaining a degree may enable you to enter at a higher level or join one of the graduate training schemes offered by some of the larger employers.
Useful degree subjects include:
- accounting or finance
- business or management
- business with languages
- modern foreign languages
- supply chain management
- transport, distribution or logistics.
A HND in one of the above subjects can also be useful.
Only a very small number of first degree and HND courses are devoted to logistics and transport. However, a range of other subjects, such as business studies and economics, often incorporate modules relating to various aspects of supply chain management.
A postgraduate qualification is not required for entry but it can be useful for career progression, especially for reaching management positions. Relevant Masters courses are available in subjects such as logistics and supply chain management, and a qualification such as this may help you to enter at a higher level. Search postgraduate courses in logistics and supply chain management.
You may benefit from joining relevant professional bodies as these can help you to keep up to date with news in the industry and to make useful contacts. Student membership is available with The Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT), which provides access to useful resources and allows you to work up the membership grades once you are in employment.
You'll need to have:
- communication skills, as you'll be liaising with a variety of people
- clarity in communication, as major problems could arise through inaccuracies
- organisational and planning skills
- teamwork, tact and good interpersonal skills
- sensitivity to culture and religion
- good geographical knowledge
- sound industry knowledge
- flexibility and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances
- problem-solving ability, particularly when working under pressure
- accuracy and attention to detail
- numeracy and computer literacy.
If you have language skills you are more likely to be offered opportunities to work abroad.
Employers value pre-entry experience. It isn't essential that the experience is in freight forwarding as there are other relevant areas that can provide you with the required skills. This includes work that involves customer service, IT or planning skills, as well as general office work.
You could gain this type of experience through part-time or casual work, or you could arrange work experience or work shadowing with a relevant company.
Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.
Most freight is handled by third-party logistics (3PL) firms rather than by individual companies running their own logistics departments.
The 3PL firms typically fall into one of these groups:
- local companies - these are generally small, single-office firms dealing with clients in their immediate local area or operating at a seaport or airport and concentrating on particular types of traffic.
- national companies - many forwarders have offices in major ports and airports throughout the country as well as in the largest industrial towns. They may also have warehousing or handling depots. Such companies often have agents or correspondents overseas in the markets in which they trade.
- international companies - global companies have their own offices overseas and offer a range of worldwide services.
Many freight forwarding companies have taken the opportunity to extend their range of services, which now include:
- packaging and goods assembly
- order picking
A few firms just work with other freight forwarders.
For a full list of trade members, which can be useful for identifying employers, see the British International Freight Association (BIFA).
Look for job vacancies at:
Vacancies are also handled by specialist recruitment agencies, such as Freight Personnel.
Some larger companies offer graduate training schemes. You'll typically spend two years working in different departments to get to know the whole business. As well as building up experience you will often study for relevant professional qualifications during this time.
If you work for a smaller company the training may be less structured. It will usually include an induction process followed by on-the-job training.
External courses are available in a number of related areas and professional qualifications are also offered by various organisations.
For example, the CILT UK provides the following qualifications:
- Level 3 Certificate in Logistics and Transport - to provide a solid foundation for a career within transport and supply chain management.
- Level 5 Professional Diploma in Logistics and Transport - to enhance new and existing expertise and develop core management skills.
- Level 6 Advanced Diploma in Logistics and Transport - to provide strategic management skills for professional development.
Find out more about available qualifications at CILT - Qualifications Available for Freight Forwarding.
Several training courses on freight forwarding procedures, including export and imports for beginners, air cargo security and the basics of sea freight are available from BIFA.
If you get involved in the import and export of goods, the Institute of Export & International Trade offers the Level 4 and Level 5 Diploma in International Trade.
Relevant Masters courses in logistics and supply chain management are available and some employers may be able to help fund these.
Progression is often to the level of senior freight forwarder or senior export administrator, followed by export office manager or shipping manager.
Some large export or import companies have their own freight forwarding staff. Career progression in such companies is likely to be limited due to the small size of the departments, and you may need to move employers in order to progress further.
Vocational and professional qualifications will certainly help in career development. Gaining chartered membership of CILT UK is particularly useful.
You'll typically need an accredited degree along with four years' experience in logistics and transport, with two of those being at a senior level. You can also gain chartered status if you have the CILT UK advanced diploma or a non-accredited degree, but the length of experience required to go alongside this will differ.
As you gain general experience as a freight forwarder, employers will value your broad expert knowledge of procedures, including:
- business risk management
- insurance services
- IT development
- quality procedures
- road transport management
- supply chain management
- warehouse and logistics management.
As well as staying within transport and logistics, you can also use this knowledge in other areas such as:
- the entertainment and sports industry, including transportation of film and concert sets, racing cars and sports equipment
- heavy industries, including aerospace, power generation and ship components manufacture
- automotive industries, including car and parts manufacture
- trading companies which deal with the import and export of various types of goods to and from particular countries or regions.
If you intend to focus on a particular region or country, knowledge of language, culture and geography is helpful.
Freight forwarders work in the manufacturing sector at senior logistics management levels. With some of the larger organisations, career development may involve working overseas.