Over the next few months we’ll be hearing from candidates for public office and business leaders about the need to restore America’s global economic competitiveness.  Whether it’s in the context of the upcoming national elections or our sluggish economic recovery, competitiveness may be the key to some of the most vexing issues facing our nation. Simply stated, our growth engine must be revved up and that’s only going to happen through the leadership of the small business community.

Despite the recent disappointing jobs numbers released, employment at small businesses is increasing. Jobs and new markets are and continue to be created through innovative and new businesses. Of particular interest are early stage small businesses. They are incubators for rapid growth and employment. One in seven early stage businesses  –  those in the first three and a half years of existence – expect to create 20 or more new jobs in the next five years.

One of the most effective tools for entrepreneurs in America’s public policy arsenal is the federal Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit. To qualify, the tax credit asks two basic questions: first, are you creating new jobs in America, and second, are you improving the design of a product, process or service?

Too often, small-to-midsize businesses (SMBs) overlook the important R&D tax credit which reduces the federal tax burden and recycles critical investment capital, protects jobs and enhances competitiveness. The tax credit can pump many thousands of dollars back into an average SMB, which can then be re-invested to grow the local economies. When small business grows, America grows.

Sadly, very few SMBs are aware that they qualify for the tax credit. In fact, less than one in ten small businesses are aware of and take advantage of the tax credit to which they are entitled. So, why are they ignoring it?

First, one of the greatest myths is that the R&D tax credit only applies to those running to find the cure for the common cold. Not true. It is not just for patents, emerging technologies and labs filled with PhDs in white coats. From producing a new product to enhancing business processes, there are many dimensions that will allow businesses to be eligible for this important incentive. Secondly, although the federal government estimates a budget of $9 billion annually for the credit, the complex federal tax code and IRS regulations – literally thousands of pages long – is a deterrent to CPAs and smaller companies, who don’t have the specialized tax departments that big businesses have.

When it comes to helping your company remain competitive, every dollar counts. I knew this growing up because my dad was a small business owner. With that experience, I passionately supported the R&D tax credit when I was a member of the U.S. Congress because it rewarded the employment of American workers as well as the kind of innovation that we know creates a virtuous cycle. We must unleash the potential of our millions of small businesses through the single most effective incentive in the federal tax code, the Research and Development Tax Credit.

Rick Lazio is Former U.S Representative (New York) and current Director at alliantgroup