Economic developers are no longer charming smokestack chasers who take industrial prospects to dinner. A young profession, economic development is changing rapidly to fit the dynamic, sophisticated world that today’s global marketplace demands. Those who practice this evolving profession realize the need for continuing education to keep pace with those demands. Professional certification through the International Economic Development Council and formal education programs are gaining widespread acceptance as necessary tools.
Max D. Hipp of Oxford was certified in 1986 and says not having that certification would be sort of like getting an accounting degree and trying to get a job without the advantage of being a certified public accountant.
“It’s a basic understanding coming into a community and having the knowledge to do the job,” he said. “Some people have gotten into it and grown into it, and that works for some, but it’s harder to do that now.”
He says the breath of the field has changed and it’s become more sophisticated. Hipp, executive director of the Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation, feels certification is another arrow in the professional’s quiver.
“There’s a lot of turnover in these jobs and you have to be prepared to have a portable résumé,” he said. “That way people know you have the necessary qualifications that are as good in Kansas City as in Jackson or anywhere.”
‘Higher level of professionalism’
David Rumbarger of Tupelo recalls that he was number 734 to be certified in the country when he received his professional certification in 1987. “I was a young developer and hungry to find out as much as I possibly could,” he said. “We’re all trying to find a better mousetrap. We want to get as much knowledge as we can to become a better professional economic developer.”
The executive director of Tupelo’s Community Development Foundation, Rumbarger earned a bachelor’s degree in public administration with an emphasis on public finance at Auburn University and recently completed a master’s of economic development at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Asked if the additional training has helped in his daily work, he answered, “Yes. It’s a study to get to a certain point, and it gives me a base of knowledge. Prospects value it and feel they get a higher level of professionalism. The community values it because they see it as a professional choice. You’re not moonlighting.”
There are still only 1,206 certified economic developers in the United States and only 325 of those are females. Sue Wright, executive director of the George County Economic Development Foundation, recently completed the rigorous process to become certified.
“I’m results oriented and this is a step in my professional development. It’s important to achieve that to me,” she said. “David Rumbarger encouraged me. I feel motivated that if someone as competent as him felt he should become certified, then I want to do that, too. “I have always tried to pattern myself after successful people and to use them as benchmarks.”
John Hendrix, director of economic development for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, became certified in 2004 and says it gave him the tools, structure and new ideas for work. Taking his continuing education a step farther, he also earned a second certification for economic development finance professionals through the National Development Council that same year. With 90% of the course work financial, it consisted of four examinations and took about a year.
“I am a believer in lifelong learning. I always have been,” he said, “and I take every opportunity to learn. The networking piece of certification is important. Just as you can be a bookkeeper or a CPA, it’s a distinction that sets you apart. It’s the same logic.”
Hendrix’s background education includes degrees in business administration from Millsaps College and an MBA from Duke University. He was with the Tribe for 10 years before beginning the professional certification process.
“I’m glad I worked 10 years before I did it,” he said. “You don’t necessarily need to wait 10 years, but you can relate better after some time working.”
He heads a staff of 10 people who work with small business development, growth and expansion of existing programs and new development for the Neshoba County-based tribe. The economic development office was established 15 years ago and works with the 10 companies owned by the Tribe.
“I’ve been through both certification programs and both are very challenging,” Hendrix said. “About 10% pass the exams on the first try. I encourage anyone working in economic development to advance this way.”
With her certification complete, Wright is now in USM’s third class for the master’s of economic development degree. Rumbarger was in the first class and is now teaching an online economic development finance class in the new program. The program offers a traditional format to students who want to attend campus in the normal academic year and an executive format for working professionals anywhere in the U.S. with a substantial online learning approach.
These economic developers say the field as a profession is a young one even though people have been doing it in some form for a long time.
Hipp said, “There are a lot of people who do chamber work and that’s just missionary work. But more and more communities are seeing this and seeking better qualified people.”
He laments that economic developers sometimes get thrown into smaller communities where their efforts are under funded and people don’t understand what they’re doing. “The smart ones will realize they can’t do it all and pool their funds and efforts into regional efforts,” he said. “Regional is the way to go. It’s very trendy now. We work with several counties around here. A win for them is a win for us.”
Wright has an undergraduate business degree from the University of Mississippi and worked in private business for a number of years. She says economic development is a diverse field that is becoming more complicated and technical.
Forget about winging it
“You can’t wing it anymore. It’s not enough to be charming and take someone to dinner,” she said. “We deal with sophisticated companies. We’re trying to educate our leadership as to the skill levels that are necessary. It’s critical to know how to do tax abatements, incentives and negotiations.”
The goal of professional certification is to get a common body of knowledge and build professional standards that will work everywhere in economic development.
Rumbarger says developers must be more creative now. “It’s great to see people learning and nice to see it evolve as a real profession,” he said. “It used to be buffalo hunters or smokestack-chasers and there’s still some of that going on.”
He recommends certification and says there are some good short courses that are great primers such as USM’s one-week course taught in September. He also likes the National Development Council’s training because it’s very focused on finance in four one-week sessions over two days.
“We’re trying to bring it to Mississippi,” he said. “It’s probably the most thorough and in-depth training for economic development finance. I find that everything boils down to dollars and cents. In the end, can the deal really work?”
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at firstname.lastname@example.org.