It’s only three letters, but it spells billions of dollars in trade that could mean thousands of jobs in Georgia and across the country: F-T-A.

Free-trade agreements were a hot topic in 2011, especially among the Korean community in Atlanta, which has been cheerleading for the long-stalled pact with their country for years.

In 2009, GlobalAtlanta asked U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk when deals with Korea, Colombia and Panama would go to a vote in Congress. He was mum.

Back in Atlanta in May 2011, he was similarly tight-lipped on timelines, though he continued to tout the deals’ benefits.

Before and after his second visit, a steady stream of Commerce Department officials came to Atlanta (and in some cases, Savannah) to praise the FTAs as keys to achieving President Obama‘s goal of doubling exports by 2015.

In October, talk turned to action when Congress passed all three deals. The Korea agreement alone is projected to boost exports by $10 billion a year, if Korean lawmakers can overcome dissension and ratify the pact.

The Colombia and Panama agreements were less controversial, though they hit some snags over safety of union workers and tax issues, respectively. Now enacted, they help level the playing field for American companies in countries that already enjoyed mostly tariff-free access to the U.S.

Along with the FTA momentum, there was a concerted push around Atlanta to highlight resources and financing that can help smaller companies start or expand their export operations.

Fred Hochberg, president and CEO of the Export-Import Bank of the United States, spoke on a September afternoon in Atlanta to showcase a new program aimed at bringing 5,000 small businesses into the bank’s portfolio by 2015.

Ex-Im is encouraging companies of all sizes to target nine developing countries with growing infrastructure needs: Brazil, Colombia, IndiaIndonesiaMexico, NigeriaSouth AfricaTurkey and Vietnam.

Later that month, U.S. Small Business Administration, which also doles out export loans, announced a $973,429 grant to help the Georgia Department of Economic Development educate companies, especially those outside urban areas, about export opportunities.

The department’s active trade division is using the funds to put together seminars, organize trade missions and offer online resources and connections for small and medium-sized companies that register on its new website

The division also received a $100,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission that will go toward helping companies in the northern part of the state build exports. Programs are to include business-to-business mentoring, briefings with country experts and a trade mission to Singapore.

The state isn’t the only entity bent on helping companies go abroad. Chambers and universities have also picked up on the trend, sometimes together.

Georgia State University‘s Center for International Business Education and Research, or CIBER, is working on the Export Academy, a 10-month certificate program to teach corporate managers how to sell abroad.

The Metro Atlanta Chamber hopes to work with CIBER to provide export education and international business insight as part of its GO: Global Opportunities program.

Chambers across the state, including the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, are increasingly taking their local firms on sales trips across the world.

With all these resources, it’s no wonder that Georgia is poised to eclipse the record export values it set last year at $28.7 billion when the new data comes out, Kathe Falls, the director of Georgia economic development department’s international trade division, told GlobalAtlanta during a recent roundtable discussion.

But the converse is also true – it’s only because most companies aren’t exporting that this sort of help is needed. Across the country, only 1 percent of small companies export, and of those, most sell to only one country, according to the Commerce Department. 

“While we are doing well, there is room for improvement,” Ms. Falls said.

This year the state’s trade team will be ramping up efforts to find small companies that either aren’t exporting or are only exporting to one market.

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As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...