STEP helps small businesses export products and create jobs at home

As U.S. policymakers focus on putting Americans back to work, we must concentrate in part on opportunities beyond our own borders.

That’s why it’s so important that Congress reauthorize the State Trade and Export Promotion (STEP) program, which is due to expire next year.

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Let’s face reality: Plenty of economies around the world are growing faster than our own. Shouldn’t we do all we can to ensure that American workers can participate in that growth?

In 2012, exports generated 9.8 million American jobs. STEP has a proven track record of creating those jobs. 

The program recognizes that our small businesses have high-quality products and services that are in demand worldwide, but that they don’t have the scale or training to start aggressively pursuing overseas markets on their own. Different languages, economic systems and political cultures all present barriers. Through STEP grants from the Small Business Administration (SBA), state offices of international trade offer local companies foreign trade missions, translation support, marketing assistance, trade show exhibitions and other export-related efforts.

With an investment of $30 million, out of a more than $3 trillion federal budget, STEP affected more than 1,600 small businesses across the country in its first year. According to the SBA, the program enabled $74 million in actual sales and an expected revenue stream of more than $225 million based on continuing business development activities.

In Delaware, we have worked with Department of Commerce officials abroad to match our firms with interested buyers in high-value markets, including China, Brazil and South Africa. With this little extra boost, our entrepreneurs are able to make the difficult leap into expanding economies with untapped and rapidly growing communities of potential customers. The overseas interactions have lasting benefits, as entrepreneurs build new relationships that can serve as a catalyst for growth for many years to come. Furthermore, once companies start exporting, the process of entering additional markets becomes significantly easier.

The small businesses taking part in Delaware’s international trade missions have already reported nearly $4.4 million in new business as a direct result of our state’s $430,000 in grants. One Delaware entrepreneur had tried to sell his firm’s innovative pesticide detection systems in China previously but couldn’t get the right meetings to close the sale. The STEP trade mission led to sales within a few months, and the company continues to work on new transactions with Chinese end users and distributors. If U.S.-based firms do not perform this type of outreach now, others will, and our losses will be measured in fewer American jobs.

The backing of Democratic and Republican governors shows the potential for bipartisan action, but we have often been disappointed by Congress’s ability to reject broadly supported ideas because of partisan politics.

As I wrote in a letter this month to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a long-term reauthorization of the program will create sustainable jobs and further strengthen our nation’s global competitiveness. We simply can’t expect to compete if our businesses do not have access to the 95 percent of consumers who live outside the country.

Our small businesses and start-up companies deserve certainty that the pathway STEP provides to the fastest growing marketplaces in the world has a future. Increased sales will allow those businesses to put more Americans to work, and that’s an outcome that leaders of all political viewpoints can endorse.

Markell is in his second term as governor of Delaware. He previously served as the state’s treasurer and was the 13th employee at Nextel (a name he coined), where he served as senior vice president for corporate development.