WASHINGTON -(Dow Jones)- Top U.S. trade officials plan to spread out across the country this year to recruit small business owners in the administration's effort to double exports by 2015.
A year after President Barack Obama announced the export initiative to help tackle stubbornly high unemployment, the administration is trying to reach out to the group of business owners that account for nearly two-thirds of job creation but less than a third of total goods sold abroad.
"For America to win the future, more small and medium-size businesses must export, because the more small businesses export, the more they produce; the more they produce, the more workers they need, and that means good-paying jobs here at home," U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said in a statement announcing the outreach program.
Locke will be joined by U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, Small Business Administration Administrator Karen Mills, and Export-Import Bank Chairman Fred Hochberg for the first stop of the year-long tour in Minneapolis on Feb. 17. Upcoming events are also scheduled for cities in California, Louisiana and Delaware, with the goal of reaching 3,500 small and medium-size companies that are interested in learning more about exporting.
With American consumers keeping their belts tight after weathering the worst recession since the Depression, the administration views export promotion as a way to stimulate the economy without using much taxpayer money. So far, exports are on track to achieve the 15% yearly gains required to reach the goal, up nearly 17% on the year through November. But continued progress could prove to be more difficult, since the administration is using as its base year 2009, when exports were at a three-year low.
The agency-wide effort is pursuing a number of fronts to boost exports, with much of the effort focused on smaller firms that Kirk calls the "low-hanging fruit."
Out of the nearly 30 million small and medium-size firms in the country, only 1% market their goods abroad.
Kirk, who wants to double that number, said, "We know that firms that export grow faster, add jobs more quickly and pay better wages than those that don't."
A senior Commerce official said the outreach effort has made some headway so far, with small and medium-size businesses accounting for over 85% of the 5,500 companies that the commercial service division helped to increase exports last year.
Still, 58% of such companies export to only one country, so Commerce has set a goal of increasing by half the number that export to more than one market.
The administration plans to establish government-wide export targets for small businesses by March, the official said.
While opening up new markets also forms part of the plan to double exports, business groups and Republican congressional leaders are growing increasingly impatient about waiting for approval of the three free-trade agreements that were held over from the Bush administration. They welcomed Obama's call in Tuesday's State of the Union address for Congress to pass the recently revised South Korea trade pact, but criticized the president for not setting a timetable for implementing the agreements with Colombia and Panama.
Business groups that are supportive the president's export target say it won't be achievable without those trade deals.
The Commerce official said export initiative will needs to achieve all of its objectives to be a success, including helping small and medium-size businesses.
"The National Export Initiative takes a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach, because while trade agreements are important--especially to small businesses, which often lack the resources to deal with barriers and tariffs--they will not by themselves allow the U.S. to reach the goal of doubling exports by 2015," the official said.
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