Exports of design and construction services, a bright spot in U.S. international trade, could get a further boost under a recently announced new round of multilateral negotiations focused on the services sector.

Talks are to begin by mid-April in Geneva among the U.S., the European Union and 18 other countries, including China and Japan. Announcing the talks on Jan. 15, U.S. Trade Rep. Ron Kirk said services exports could rise substantially. But he added, "To begin to realize this potential, we need to surmount a range of barriers that lock out, constrain or disrupt the international supply of services."

Industry welcomed the news about the negotiations. Steve Hall, American Council of Engineering Companies vice president for government affairs, says, "The international market is one of the few real growth markets out there for the industry in recent years. So, obviously, anything that might help to further open those markets, we're very interested in and certainly want to support."

Jessica Salmoiraghi, American Institute of Architects director of federal relations and counsel, says, "We think it's a great opportunity." She says design and construction is "something that the U.S Commerce Dept. looks at as a very large growth opportunity."

In 2011, the industry category that includes architectural/engineering services had $8.3 billion in exports and posted a $6.9-billion trade surplus. Construction services' exports are smaller, but it has had a string of surpluses, including $671 million in 2011. Still, those sectors, together, equal less than 2% of U.S. services exports and thus are unlikely to be pivotal in the coming talks.

Topics of interest to U.S. firms may include countries' differing licensing standards and the factors determining which entity will complete a project's preliminary engineering. It remains unclear what design or construction changes will be sought from the U.S. USTR plans a March 12 public hearing on the talks.