Pioneering entrepreneurs may be the key to U.S. job growth. (Keiji Iwai/GETTY IMAGES)

This piece is part of a leadership roundtable on unemployment and restarting America’s jobs engine — with opinion pieces by former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O’Neill, Harvard Business School professor and author Bill George, leadership expert Katherine Tyler Scott, Wharton School professor Michael Useem, and Woodrow Wilson Center scholar Amy M. Wilkinson.

We need innovators to restart the jobs engine. With their bold new ideas, entrepreneurs and next-generation leaders are our best hope for scaling high-growth businesses. If we want more jobs, we need more Steve Jobs.

But Uncle Sam doesn’t seem to get it. Old man Washington wages partisan war, disregarding his own house on fire with unemployment. Today only 58 percent of the population is working, the lowest number in nearly three decades. And 46 million Americans are on food stamps, a national record.

Wonder who creates jobs in America? The U.S. Census Bureau reports small businesses are responsible for more than 50 percent of GDP and private sector employment, and for more than 90 percent of exports and innovations. What’s more, Kauffman Foundation data reveals that it is not only small businesses but companies less than five years old that create many of these new jobs.

So let’s stop fighting over the old and start creating the new. Without inventing new products and services, and without building next technologies and ideas, how will we ever afford our homes, manage our healthcare costs or pay down our debts?  

The leaders in Washington can help us do this, and they can start by welcoming immigrants who are job generators. Many in Silicon Valley are calling for an “entrepreneurs’ visa” to be awarded to immigrants who start up businesses and hire a certain number of U.S. workers. In 2008, nearly 40 percent of technology company founders were foreign born, including the founders of Google, Yahoo and eBay, to name a few. Attracting world-class talent extends beyond the tech sector as well. German immigrant Levi Strauss, for example, fashioned the quintessentially American Levi’s jeans.

We must also reform patent processing to accelerate the commercialization of new products and services, and to help these entrepreneurs quickly become the employers of the future. Chronic delays at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office often kill U.S. innovators’ cutting-edge ideas. Offering expedited service in tiered fee structures would be one simple step toward eliminating the 700,000 patent-application backlog—because the faster we approve and protect intellectual property, the faster we create the next generation of jobs.

We also need to make sure that every American student knows about the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, a program that works with middle-school and high-school students to teach entrepreneurial skills. We must encourage First Robotics, a sports competition in which students build robots to compete in regional and national tournaments, gaining math and science skills along the way. As First Robotics Founder Dean Kamen says, “critical thinking is the sport in which every student can go pro.”

Finally, to support job generation we need to make permanent the current capital gains tax exemption for long-term investments in startups. These tax incentives are set to expire at the beginning of 2012 for investments. Tax-centric efforts are difficult to stomach given U.S. debt woes, but if we believe that innovation underpins job generation, then the temporary losses will be repaid by increases in tax revenues arising from a new generation of companies.

Democrats and Republicans point fingers, but Americans don’t rally to bickering politicians. Consumer confidence rises on just that—confidence—the idea that our best days lie ahead. Americans respond to pioneering and pragmatic leaders who lift up our enterprising spirit. To move the economy out of second gear, entrepreneurs must take the wheel.

After all, who knows better how to manage through volatility? How to invent, adapt and reinvent their work every day? The most successful entrepreneurial endeavors often appear to be on the brink of failure. Individuals like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates are always being threatened and it often looks like doomsday is just around the corner, but they pull through.

Just look at Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Google. Everyone said that the world didn’t need another search engine, since Yahoo owned the market. They were just a couple of guys from Stanford with a little piece of technology. People questioned how they could build a company and stated that it would never scale. There were doubts it could be monetized, but the Google founders disregarded naysayers and did what they set out to do.

With unemployment persisting above 9 percent and fear of a double-dip recession mounting, there is no time to waste. Pioneering entrepreneurs bring out the best in America, and right now we need to bring out our best.

Amy M. Wilkinson is a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Business and Government, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and the author of a forthcoming book on global entrepreneurs.

From the roundtable:

Paul O’Neill: Only presidential leadership can restart America’s engine

Bill George:Enough talk about jobs—where’s the action?

Michael Useem: Revising investor capitalism’s mantra

Katherine Tyler Scott: A moral imperative on unemployment

Be in the know on everything we’re covering here at The Post’s On Leadership section. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.