There was good news and not-so-good news for small-business owners released in the past two weeks.

The good news is that the volume of loans to women business owners backed by the U.S. Small Business Administration has almost tripled since 1992.

The bad news is that another survey reveals a looming labor shortage for small companies.

"Women play a huge economic, cultural and social role in every part of American life," said SBA Administrator Aida Alvarez. "Through financial, technical and management assistance, the SBA is doing more than ever to help level the playing field for women entrepreneurs who still face obstacles."

Alvarez, noting that March is National Women's History month, said the SBA has backed more than 69,440 loans since 1992, providing guarantees worth $10.7 billion. (The SBA does not lend money directly to business owners. It provides loan guarantees for loans written by other lending institutions.)

To help women just starting a business, the SBA offers a loan pre-qualification program that helps women through the application process.

Alvarez said she is encouraging more venture capital funds to invest in women-owned firms. In fiscal 1999, the SBA's Small Business Investment Company Program invested $4.2 billion in small firms; however, only 1 percent, or $55 million, went to women-owned companies.

Today, nearly 40 percent of all businesses about 9.1 million are owned by women. Their companies employ 27.5 million workers, and post more than $3.6 trillion in annual sales, according to Alvarez.

Alvarez noted that the SBA is also working to increase federal contracting opportunities for women entrepreneurs. In fiscal 1998, women-owned companies won $4 billion worth of federal contracts. The agency has signed agreements with 10 federal agencies and 15 business and professional women's organizations, to help promote SBA programs.

Changing workforce

A major study about the future of small business in America was also released last week. The prognosis is good, although there will be fewer startups in the next five years, and a smaller workforce, according to the report, which was sponsored by American Express, IBM, National Small Business United and the Research Institute for Small and Emerging Business.

"We are on the verge of a small-business renaissance period fueled by technological empowerment," said Richard W. Oliver, an author and management professor at Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management. "All three factors are in place now technology, capital and people so we now have a vibrant small-business sector that's forcing the economy to be innovative."

According to the study, between 1996 and 2006, the number of young workers (ages 25 to 44) in the labor force will shrink by nearly 2 million workers. Because this particular age bracket is the principal source of labor for new entrepreneurial companies, Oliver predicts there will be fewer startup companies. Small-business owners will also be pushed to hire more women and minorities, and keep older employees on the job longer.

The report predicts a 10 percent business startup rate and a 9 percent business closure rate in a typical year. On the bright side, the study predicts small businesses will have access to more credit and capital in the next 15 years.

"We are going to see a shift in how businesses are formed based on two forces; first, non-traditional lenders will finance more small businesses, and second, we will see an increase in financing options," said Richard Tambor, vice president of Small Business Services at American Express.

The study also predicts dot-com companies will continue to attract money from venture-capital funds, and small businesses will gravitate toward online banking.

Amex also recently released results from its "Voice from Main Street" poll of 1,100 small-business owners. The polls ranked improving schools and training for young people, along with affordable health care for employees and business owners at the top of the list. Tax cuts and tax reform ranked fourth, and reducing government regulations and paperwork ranked fifth.

More than half of the business owners polled said they feel local politicians listen more to their concerns, and 60 percent said congressional candidates don't pay enough attention to small-business issues.

Odds and ends

Nina McLemore, president of Regent Capital in New York City, is the new chair of the National Foundation for Women Business Owners. Myra Hart, a professor at Harvard Business School in Boston, is vice chair of NFWBO, the research arm of the National Association of Women Business Owners

Internet Investing 2000 is set for April 10-12 at the Tribeca Rooftop in New York City. The conference, sponsored by International Business Forum, is designed for venture capitalists and angel investors interested in investing in Internet businesses. For details, visit www.ibforum.com or call (516) 594-3000

The 2000 National Minority Supplier Development Council Conference and Business Opportunity Fair is scheduled for Oct. 29-Nov. 1 at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans. This year's theme is "Business Diversity: The New Frontier in the 21st Century."

There are an estimated 3.2 million minority-owned businesses in the United States, employing about 4 million workers, and generating more than $500 million in annual revenues. For detailed information, write to NMSDC, 1040 Avenue of the Americas, 2nd Floor, New York, N.Y. 10018, or call (212) 944-2430.

Reporting by Julie Neal. Jane Applegate is the author of "201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business," and is founder of ApplegateWay.com, a multimedia Web site for busy entrepreneurs. She can be reached via e-mail at jane@janeapplegate.com.

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