Like all professionals in the ever-changing business world, economic developers must have continuing education to remain current in their field. Programs through professional organizations and universities are among the formal options available.
The executive format master’s degree program at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Community and Economic Development is one of a few niche programs of its kind in the country. It’s been around since 1980. This past year, the program started a new format of part in-person classes and part online. There are currently 15 students enrolled.
Dr. Judson Edwards, who directs the program, says busy economic developers requested the new format. “It’s to help them advance their education and keep working,” he said. “These professionals particularly need this executive format in the changing world of economic development. It isn’t just chasing industry anymore.”
One of the courses is “Building Competitive Economies.” It looks at ways to make small towns and rural communities realize they are part of a global community. “It gives ways to change the mindset to what they can do to compete,” he said.
Edwards, who is a graduate of this program, has a special interest in this issue. He saw textile mills close in his hometown of Smith Station, Ala., and has an affinity for the problems towns face when manufacturing jobs are lost.
David Rumbarger of Tupelo is a recent graduate of USM’s master’s program. After 23 years working in economic development, he says it was just the thing for him.
“I was at the mid point of my career and it made me look at how I’m doing things and consider new methods,” he said. “It’s not easy, but is designed for busy people. It’s a great program, and I recommend it to anyone in economic development.”
He feels that most communities in the state are accustomed to recruiting industry as the number one and only strategy. “Manufacturing is changing and if that’s your only plan, you’re in trouble,” he said. “We must try to diversify. That’s the key and the main thing I learned.”
The president of Tupelo’s Community Development Foundation, Rumbarger says his board gave him some time off so the course work would fit his schedule. “The classes slowed me down to think about why I do the things I do,” he said. “School work makes you think about the logic and reasoning behind what you’re doing.”
With an undergraduate degree from Auburn University, he is now working with Edwards to bring a weeklong series of financial courses to the state in 2006. He says the very intense workshop is normally taught in Chicago and New York and will be affordable for the state’s economic developers.
“Education and training are important to recruit in economic development,” he said. “I consider myself a lifelong learner.”
Different today, different tomorrow
George Freeland has lots of professional letters following his name and is passionate about continuing education. “Even though I have certification, I always have to maintain educational training,” he said. “I’m convinced that economic development changes rapidly. It’s different today and will be different tomorrow.”
He’s executive director of the Jackson County Economic Development Foundation and has been through the rigorous accreditation program of the International Economic Development Council. It’s a three-year program that ends with a two-day oral and written examination. Then re-certification through teaching, attending seminars and writing is required every three years.
“They’re very stringent and you have to be careful that the third year doesn’t roll around and you’re playing make up,” he said. “Economic development is a highly complex, technical endeavor that requires that the professional constantly stay up to date.”
Although Freeland thinks certification is the threshold of training, he says developers need to work in the profession for two or three years before entering the program. The Auburn University graduate is also a big believer in the weeklong economic development institutes held by his alma mater, USM and other schools. He sends staff members to these.
He also does yearly retreats for his board. “It’s critical to the success of any economic development program that board members be educated and sophisticated about new trends and how the field is changing,” he said. “I’m convinced I have one of the most knowledgeable boards in the state and that’s why we are successful.”
Tapping into a network
Britt Herrin, executive director of the Pike County Economic Development District, attends several seminars and the annual conference of the Southern Economic Development Council each year. A developer for 17 years, he’s going to Birmingham, Ala., June 15 and 16 for an automotive logistics seminar geared to attracting auto suppliers.
The Quitman County native also completed the basic economic development course at Georgia Tech and the institutes at the University of Oklahoma and University of Arkansas where he focused on development for rural areas.
“The seminars are the biggest thing for me,” he said, “and I think networking helps most of all. No one can know everything so we must have a network of people.”
Herrin said his organization has a detailed, targeted plan that concentrates on attracting businesses in logistics and plastics, distribution centers, auto suppliers and metal fabricators.
“Also, we have a lot of trees here so we want to develop wood processing, and we’ve been successful in attracting a lot of retail and the medical community is growing,” he said. “We’re becoming a retail and medical hub for the area.”
Gray Swoope says he also relies on professional associations for continuing education. “One that’s been good for me is the Mississippi Economic Development Council,” he said. “It has great speakers and conferences. I depend on it.”
The deputy director and chief operating officer of the Mississippi Development Authority, Swoope has worked in economic development for 20 years. Reading is also a major way he keeps up with the profession. His latest book was “Purple Cow” by Seth Goldin.
“It’s a marketing book,” he said. “I consider my strength to be marketing, positioning and sales. My mission is to sell the state.”
Swoope selects reading and conferences that he feels will help him work best. “I choose things that fit my focus,” he said, “such as the marketing conference last October at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business.”
He recommends a course for chief executive officers and chief volunteers put on by the American Society of Association Executives. “It’s a real intense course on setting strategy for organizations, not just economic developers,” he said.
Dr. Edwards says USM’s New South Course to be held October 23-28 is an annual event that’s beneficial to many professionals. Economic developers from all over the country attend the four-day event that’s held on the Gulf Park Campus in Long Beach.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at firstname.lastname@example.org.