To say it's been a tough two years in the world of small business is an understatement, and many business owners continue to find little to cheer them.

But, as the economy has staggered, owners at a baker's dozen of area companies joined one effort to better their chances for success and growth.

Those Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware business owners — most managing firms with just a handful of employees — graduated yesterday from a six-month course put on by the federal Small Business Administration and designed to give M.B.A.-style tools to entrepreneurs who normally wouldn't have the time or the resources to go after them.

"It was teaching an old dog new tricks," Michael Sands, one of the graduates, told me.

Sands, 56, runs Natural Pest Control Co., an eight-employee bug-killing service based in Camden. Sands has a degree in agribusiness from Penn State. But after 30 years in business, "there are a lot of modern things that have to be kept up with," he said.

Those things, Sands said, include "social networking and the Internet — marketing on the Internet." In addition, he listed, as subjects covered in the program, financial basics, goal-setting, and learning how to compete for government contracts in this age of stimulus spending.

"Learning the basics of government contracting is a critical component of this course," said Michael Kane, the SBA business development specialist in charge of the Philadelphia program.

The other companies represented in the "Class of 2009" of what the SBA calls its 11-city Emerging 200 initiative, or E-200, are Creative Characters Inc., of Philadelphia; CTE Healthcare Communications, Philadelphia; Electric Man L.L.C., Frazer; Jobecca Technology Group L.L.C., Bristol; Lansdowne Beverage, Lansdowne; Lillian's Paintbrush L.L.C., Moorestown; Lindsay & Sons Construction, Philadelphia; Ram Tech Systems Inc., Newark, Del.; Revolution Recovery L.L.C., Philadelphia; Sang Kee Peking Duck House, Philadelphia; Significant Business Results, Bryn Mawr; and Sovereign Security L.L.C., Philadelphia.

Networking with people from a variety of business backgrounds and "different ethnicities" was a big draw for him, Sands said. "When the pressure is on, it seems like we're all grabbing hands together," he said.

Sands, for one, says that as far as he can tell, the economy is "looking better. We will be employing at least three more workers … in the next 30 days."

This was the second year for the SBA to offer the E-200 course. Kane said it will be offered again starting in spring 2010, and anyone interested may give him a call at 610-382-3062.

To qualify, a business has to have been in operation for at least three years, and must have annual revenue of at least $400,000.

Unemployment

Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry Secretary Sandi Vito was in Washington yesterday along with officials from other states to ask Congress to reauthorize extended unemployment benefits that otherwise will begin to run out this month.

In spite of signs of recovery — including a dip in the unemployment rate to 10 percent last month, from 10.2 percent — "there are still 15 million Americans out of work — half a million in Pennsylvania alone. And many more are underemployed," Vito told me.

Pennsylvania will hand out $3.1 billion this year in extended federally funded unemployment benefits, and is seeking a similar amount for 2010, state labor department spokesman Troy Thompson said.

Mike Armstrong is on assignment. Contact Reid Kanaley at 215-854-5114 or rkanaley@phillynews.com.