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Why Uncle Sam wants to be your business partner

·Senior Columnist

Just about every business owner would love to export more—but it’s hard knowing where to start. Big multinationals have operatives in many countries and consultants to fill the void where they don’t, but smaller firms often lack the resources or know-how needed to penetrate foreign markets.

Uncle Sam wants to help. Seriously. “Remember, 95% of customers are outside the United States,” Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker tells me in the video above. “The United States is a wonderful market, but today companies need to be thinking globally right from the get-go.”

In 2010, President Obama pledged to double U.S. exports by 2015. Exports have risen from $1.6 trillion in 2009 (the base year for Obama’s pledge) to an estimated $2.4 trillion this year. That’s a 50% increase, which has raised the total number of jobs supported by exports to more than 11 million, according to new Commerce Dept. research. That’s about 8% of the U.S. labor force.

Still, the pace of exports is set to fall far short of Obama’s 2015 goal. And while the growth of exports has been healthy, imports have risen too and the annual trade deficit is about $120 billion larger than it was in 2009. That slows U.S. economic growth and job creation, because Americans still buy considerably more stuff produced overseas than the amount we sell to foreigners.

So while small and medium-sized businesses might want some help tapping into new overseas markets, the Obama administration could also use some help pushing export numbers closer to Obama’s goals. To that end, Pritzker and other administration officials are urging business owners to take advantage of government resources many business owners probably don’t know about.

Pritzker urges businesses that want to export more to start by contacting an export assistance center run by the government in about 100 U.S. cities. The U.S. Export-Import Bank—which conservatives in Congress want to kill by refusing to renew its funding –helps sponsor the export centers, so thrifty taxpayers who reach out for help can use it as an opportunity to test the usefulness of an agency conservatives regard as government overreach.

The Commerce Dept. has officials on the ground in 72 countries to help U.S. businesses navigate foreign markets and spot opportunities. “They want to help you,” Pritzker promises. “That’s their job.” Government export assistants basically work the way a consultant might (minus the hefty fees), helping businesses figure out which foreign markets might be suitable targets for the goods or services they provide—and which to stay away from.

Africa is one example of a region that many businesses might overlook, even though several nations there have a growing middle class and are receptive to American products. Fast-growing China is an obvious target for many exporters, but recent moves to rein in big businesses such as Microsoft (MSFT), Qualcomm (QCOM) and Chrysler might make smaller businesses wonder if it’s worth getting involved in such an unpredictable and mysterious economy. “We will help you figure out, given your products, what are the opportunities, what are the risks, who you might partner with and how you might go about getting financing,” Pritzker says. After partnering with Uncle Sam, the rest might seem easy.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.