A nationwide push to boost exports — and the U.S. jobs that come with them — is launching in Los Angeles.
The project, led by the Brookings Institution and JPMorgan Chase & Co., is called the Global Cities Initiative, and its primary message is that the nation's economic growth will come from metropolitan areas that best assist business in selling to overseas customers.
"The whole idea is to get businesses to start to think globally," said former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, chair of the initiative and a senior advisor to JPMorgan Chase. "We don't realize the potential that America has for this, and the more we do, the better off the country will be."
To achieve that, the project's experts will visit several cities, bringing studies about the export potential of various regions, sharing best export practices with local leaders and business owners, and building an international network of trade contacts.
"We will be helping every city and metro area understand their starting point on global engagement: what they trade, who they trade with, what is growing," said Brookings Vice President Bruce J. Katz, co-director of the think tank's Metropolitan Policy Program. "We will do this for each city and metro area, tailored to them."
The Global Cities Initiative, funded with $10 million from JPMorgan Chase, is also looking to help consolidate work on building export growth. Other efforts have included the Obama administration's national export initiative.
Locally, both ports have reached out to local merchants with advice and support on attracting foreign buyers. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation's largest cargo complex, set a record for exports in 2011. In addition, Southern California ranks first among the nation's 100 top metropolitan areas in export sales.
But more can be done here and around the U.S., the initiative's backers say.
"The U.S. economy looked inward for its growth for the past 25 years," Katz said. "Going forward, we are going to have to look outside our borders and recognize that 95% of the world's consumers live outside the U.S."
International trade has been one of Southern California's most important providers of employment, with firms tied to the sector employing nearly 640,000 workers.
Still, the members of the Global Cities Initiative contend that there are too few companies like Torrance-based Luminit, a technology company that has dramatically increased the share of business it does overseas.
Luminit's sales to foreign buyers have jumped to 50%, up from 15% to 20% of sales a few years ago, said Peter Zinsli, who handles sales and marketing planning for the company.
Luminit develops holographic, electro-optical and other sophisticated technologies. Its products have been used in items as varied as mobile phones and biomedical equipment, including a technology that helps machines "see" flaws in glass.
"We felt from the outset that it was important to develop international interest and customers," Zinsli said.
Helping companies replicate what Luminit and others are already doing, Katz said, "is going to be the gift that keeps on giving. This is how we are going to power growth, and not just more jobs but better-paying jobs. This is what every city and metropolitan area in America is going to have to do."
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who will speak a kickoff event for the five-year initiative Wednesday at USC, said it was important for local leaders to grab the bull by the horns.
"We are not waiting for Washington to create jobs," Villaraigosa said in a statement.
"This is why Los Angeles partnered with Brookings and is the first region to implement an export plan of this magnitude," the mayor said. "The export plan and the Los Angeles Regional Export Council will help local companies reach into international markets so we can create new jobs."