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How to Keep U.S. Exports (and Jobs) Growing

U.S. exports, a bright spot in the lethargic economic recovery, have now expanded for 10 straight quarters—two-and-a-half years. Alongside an improving jobs picture, the trend offers further evidence of an economy on the mend.

Yet, as the economy improves and the dollar strengthens, how to keep export momentum going, and the good paying jobs exports create at home, needs to be a long-term focus of American growth and competitiveness goals.

To get there, national efforts to reduce trade barriers or reorganize trade programs, while helpful, are not enough. The United States needs to empower metropolitan areas, the front lines of American business activity, to help more firms become new exporters and lay the foundation for greater global engagement.

Post-recession, the steady surge in U.S. exports can be credited, in part, to the low value of the dollar and the efforts of sophisticated multinational companies specializing in such products as motor vehicles, aircraft, and petroleum. The benefits of these big exporters to their domestic suppliers and local-serving industries cannot be overstated.

Yet, the share of U.S. firms that sell a product or good outside our borders has not budged past 1 percent, despite decades of domestic and overseas services and programs dedicated to helping companies export. 

Exporting is simply not in the American DNA.

We need a massive culture shift. While President Obama’s national export challenge has garnered much support and attention, the results remain sobering on the ground. Too many company executives remain unaware of global opportunities, fear to leave the comforts of the domestic market, and do not know what services exist (and who provides them) to help them navigate the export course. 

However, several innovating metropolitan areas are stepping up to more aggressively orient their economic ecosystem for global trade. Recently, the greater Portland, Oregon, area released its “ExPort Portland” plan, which leverages the region’s strengths in computer electronics and clean technology services to meet global demand. In the coming weeks, the Los Angeles, Minneapolis-Saint Paul, and the Syracuse/Central New York regions will issue and begin implementing their own plans to boost exports and trade. 

These metro export strategies strengthen state and federal export activities in a number of ways.

First, the plans reflect that metro areas are the crucible of exporting. They are our nation’s centers of innovation, producers of tradable goods and services, magnets of talent, and hubs of freight and passenger movement. The 100 largest metro areas produce the majority of exports for the nation, including generating more than three-quarters of all service exports. Los Angeles, Portland, Minneapolis-Saint Paul, and Syracuse respectively rank 1st, 12th, 14th and 72nd among metro areas in export volume. These strategies will measurably increase our nation’s export capacity.

Second, many of these plans involve metro chambers of commerce, port authorities, regional civic groups, or regional economic development agencies that have strong direct relationships with firms. They are well-positioned to proactively reach out to target companies, perhaps within priority industries, and help them become export-ready, thereby building the nation’s pipeline of quality exporters. 

Further, few regional economic development officials promote global trade as an expansion strategy for businesses. Engaging them as partners is essential to making exports more the norm than the exception.

Third, leaders in these metro areas are bringing together the vast network of export service providers and champions around a unified goal and strategy for boosting exports. This has the added benefit of ensuring that all players—government, business, financial, civic, university, and nonprofit leaders—are working in concert toward a shared ambition versus all-too-common fragmentation. Firms will also benefit from a coordinated system of services that will give them the confidence that exporting is the right investment.

Finally, exports in these metros represent just the beginning of a more comprehensive game plan for greater global engagement. Metro leaders are aligning strategies in foreign direct investment, manufacturing innovation, freight and transportation modernization, and immigrant outreach so they build a more globally fluent economy.

Only then can American firms truly tap the immense demand arising from emerging markets around the world and innovate and grow at home.

  • Amy Liu is a senior fellow, and co-director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. She and Bruce Katz, the Institution’s Vice President, launched the program in 1996 to provide decision-makers with the latest trends analyses, policy ideas, and on-the-ground practices to help metropolitan areas, compete and prosper. Over the years, she has worked directly with neighborhood, city, suburban, and rural leaders within metropolitan areas; and government, business and civic leaders at the regional, state, and national level to address the most pressing challenges and opportunities facing our communities.