Six months into her tenure as head of the Small Business Administration, Linda McMahon sees a split among small business owners -- they are increasingly optimistic, she says, but many are held back by their inability to get loans or find the right workers for jobs that are staying open.
"Entrepreneurs are willing again to be bigger risk-takers than they have been over the past eight years," McMahon said in a phone interview this week with The Associated Press. But, she said, there are also lingering effects of the Great Recession, and "I think there is still a caution."
McMahon's observations matched owners' self-assessments in surveys including ones released by Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management and Dun & Bradstreet Corp. and by the National Federation of Independent Business. She also named some of the stumbling blocks that many owners have cited in addition to a scarcity of loans and workers: regulations, taxes and the cost of health care, all issues President Donald Trump has pledged to address.
McMahon has spent the past six months traveling around the country, meeting owners at their companies and events like forums and roundtables. She came to the SBA after being a big donor to the Republican Party and two unsuccessful runs for the Senate from Connecticut. She has a background in business; she and her husband, Vince, founded and built World Wrestling Entertainment Inc., now a publicly traded sports entertainment company. She resigned as CEO in 2009 and last year co-founded Women's Leadership LIVE, which promotes opportunities for women in business and public service.
WHAT'S HOLDING UP HIRING?
Although small businesses are hiring more now than during the recession, many are conservative, not wanting to add staffers unless they have enough new business to justify expanding their payrolls.
But some owners want to hire, and can't. McMahon echoed the feeling of many: They can't find workers with the skills to match their companies' needs.
Jobs for skilled workers like carpenters, electricians and welders are going unfilled, as are technology positions like computer code writers, McMahon said. Companies that provide services like heating, ventilation and air conditioning are struggling to find workers to install and repair equipment.
"There's a lack of interest, or there is not a trained workforce to come in," McMahon said, adding that at many companies, skilled workers are age 50 to 55. Owners are telling her, "I don't have that next group that's going to take over these jobs."
Another factor in the worker shortage is an unemployment rate that's at a 16-year-low of 4.3 percent -- there are fewer people looking for jobs. Workers may also be harder to come by if legislation to restrict immigration, a bill backed by Trump, becomes law. A study released by the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School projected that if the bill becomes law, domestic workers won't fill all the jobs that have been held by immigrants who would no longer be allowed in the U.S.
Some solutions are coming from companies ranging from large ones like Boeing to small manufacturers that have been donating money, equipment or expertise to community college and high school students to train them for such jobs, McMahon says. This continues a trend in place for decades, though. In 1988 the Commission on the Future of Community Colleges recommended that community colleges work with companies to train students with the aim of their getting jobs upon graduation, and schools across the country subsequently began working with employers on training programs.
McMahon believes that training will lead to entrepreneurship: "When you get those skills, you can start your own business."
She pointed to an executive order Trump signed in June that roughly doubled to $200 million the taxpayer money allocated to learn-and-earn programs under a grant system called ApprenticeshipUSA. The money was to come from existing job training programs rather than a new line in the proposed federal budget, which would slash funding for the Labor Department's job training programs by a third.
SMALL BUSINESS LENDING
Small businesses, particularly the youngest, tiniest and those owned by women and minorities, have historically had a hard time getting loans. Trump's steps to roll back parts of the financial regulation law known as Dodd-Frank would help banks lend more to small businesses, McMahon said.
A report issued by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in June proposed relaxing some of Dodd-Frank's requirements, including those on smaller banks. The community banking industry and some small business advocates have said that the law, enacted in response to the 2008 financial crisis, has imposed regulations on small banks that make it harder for them to lend to small companies, and to stay in business themselves. Supporters of Dodd-Frank want to keep the law on the books to ensure that banks cannot engage in the lending and investing practices that led to the collapse of hundreds of financial institutions including big investment banks Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns.
Lending to small businesses has improved since the worst days of the recession; the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. counted $331 billion in commercial and industrial bank loans under $1 million as of Dec. 31, the most recent figures available. Lending dropped to a low of $279 billion at the end of September 2012. However, the Pepperdine-Dun & Bradstreet survey found that only about a third of companies with revenue under $5 million were successful in getting bank loans in the first four months of the year.
McMahon acknowledged that banks need to better serve the needs of women and minority business owners. The administration is "making sure that our lenders understand what our expectations are relative to having women and minorities on equal footing when they come in" to apply for loans, she said. Women business owners need to be better advocates for themselves, McMahon said.
"We've found that women aren't as aggressive at promoting themselves and putting themselves forward as men, although more women are starting businesses and having a better success rate," she said.
Many owners including women need help in developing their business plans, and McMahon noted they can look for help from SBA-sponsored programs including Small Business Development Centers, Women's Business Centers and SCORE, the organization that gives free counseling to small companies.
Trump's proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 cuts the SBA's appropriation by nearly 5 percent from the current level. But McMahon said that won't affect the agency's ability to help small businesses.
"We've looked at our programs across the board and we found that had some duplication in our programs. We also have some workforce positions that had not been filled and we're not going to fill," she said. "It won't impact the effectiveness of the SBA to be doing the programs it should be doing."
--The Associated Press