Obama Official Reaches Out to Manufacturers

Lamb-Hale says U.S. industry needs to utilize government programs to tap into new, high-growth markets.

U.S. manufactures are competing on a global chessboard, but too few have diversified their sales in multiple markets, says Nicole Lamb-Hale, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Manufacturing and Services.

Lamb-Hale is tasked with facilitating President Obama's efforts to double U.S. manufacturing exports in the next five years. To do this, she said, industry will need to take advantage of a resource that has been woefully under-utilized: the services of the government.

In a keynote address at the "Pathway to Manufacturing Prosperity Conference" on Thursday in Chicago, held by IndustryWeek and New Equipment Digest, in partnership with the Italian Trade Commission, Lamb-Hale said federal initiatives aimed at increasing U.S. export sales, identifying new customers in emerging markets, and introducing and protecting U.S. technology will be vital for post-recession industry.

"While the U.S. is a major exporter, we are underperforming," said Lamb-Hale. "Currently, fewer than 1% of America's 30 million companies export outside the U.S. There's great potential for improvement."

The problem, she said, is too few companies tap the resources available.

"People don't know what's out there," said Lamb-Hale afterward in an exclusive interview with IndustryWeek. "We have too many secrets in government. That's part of the problem. That's why we need to get out there and show industry the resources that are available."

Lamb-Hale works primarily through the Commerce Department's International Trade Administration (ITA). The Obama administration wants a stronger ITA as a means of advocating for American businesses abroad and will increase its budget by 20% to $540 million in 2011. Lamb-Hale said that the Export-Import Bank of the United States -- which provides export financing when private banks cannot or will not -- will see an increase in the budget for financing small- and medium-size businesses.

"The essence of our function is to convene experts both inside and outside the government to develop solutions to the issues faced by U.S. industry," said Lamb-Hale. "We collaborate with Congress, with agencies across the federal government, and with state and local governments. We have contacts and can connect industry to resources and tools available by the federal government. All these tools can help enhance our competitiveness around the world."

Recent economic data suggests a recovery is underway, helped in large part by U.S. exports, which grew by 3.2% in March. More specifically, manufactured goods exports were even more impressive, with growth of 18.7%, which Lamb-Hale noted was propelled by overseas sales to emerging markets like the Middle East, South America and Africa.

In 2009, the U.S. exported $802 billion worth of manufactured goods, the majority of which went to America's five largest markets with Canada, Mexico, China, Japan and Great Britain. According to a recent study, she said, 58% of exporters sell to just one market abroad.

But tapping into those high-growth markets will be vital, she says. A primary resource for this, Lamb-Hale said, is the network of United States Export Assistance Centers (USEAC), which is spread throughout over 100 U.S. cities and helps manufacturers identify new markets and customers and arrange financing for overseas ventures.

She also suggested the International Buyer Program (IBP), which is coordinated through the ITA, and brings international buyers to a variety of U.S. trade shows, arranging interviews with exhibitors to explore export opportunities with agency commercial specialists. The agency's world-wide promotion network includes offices in 85 nations.

All these efforts, she said, come as the administration attempts to create more of a partnership with the industrial community.

"I think there had been a movement in the past focusing away from manufacturing and looking more at the services sector," Lamb-Hale said. "We have to nurture manufacturing here. It's something that traditionally has been a backbone for U.S. economic growth."

That might not be easy. There has often been a sense of distrust between industry and the government sector which has only strained in recent years. That can only change, said Lamb-Hale, in baby steps.

"I like to focus on what I can control and I really can't control the past," she said. "What I can say is the Obama administration is business-friendly. We want to help with our actions, not with our words. I want to expose U.S. business to the resources available. If we can bring value to businesses, that's a positive step in the right direction."

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