Ever wonder how someone breaks into the business of economic development? There doesn’t seem to be one route or one background that leads to becoming an economic developer.
Brent Hales, professor of economic and workforce development at the University of Southern Mississippi, says they come from every kind of background.
Different backgrounds, different skills
“There’s a wide variety,” he said. “Economic developers come from marketing, communications, banking and finance, business management, liberal arts and the hard sciences,” Hales explains. “Each background brings different skill sets that can create a team and that’s important. Economic development is a multi-agency thing, not an individual thing. There’s no place for turf wars.”
John Green, coordinator for the master’s program in economic development and assistant professor at Delta State University, agrees.
“Anyone going into economic development needs to be flexible, work with multiple organizations, be able to balance a lot of different projects and have a strong commitment to the broader social good and public good of the community,” he said.
Both professors stress that training is important regardless of background. Hales recently taught the yearly New South Economic Development Course to 58 participants from three other states in addition to Mississippi. One-third to one-half of the participants are working in economic development and others took the class for professional development or hope to make career changes into economic development. Some came from chambers of commerce and power companies.
“Economic development is hot now. There’s a lot of interest in it,” Hales said. “There’s been resurgence in state and local interest in economic development. A lot of people realize the opportunities post Katrina and come from different perspectives.”
The Mississippi Economic Development Council supports professional training. “We do things to help professionals get the training they need,” said executive director Carol Hardwick. “We give scholarships to our members to attend the New South course. The time to apply opens October 1 and runs through November 30.”
Reaching out, building partnerships
Both USM and Delta State offer master’s degrees in economic development. Delta State has a center for community and economic development. A new facility is about to open at USM that Hales says will be the hallmark building on campus. It is the Trent Lott National Center of Excellence for Economic Development and Entrepreneurship.
“We’re truly reaching out and building partnerships to come together to promote the practice — not just the idea — of regional economic development,” he said.
Graduates of Delta State’s master’s program work throughout the Delta and state. “Having training in business or accounting is important, but those wanting to pursue economic development also need specialized hands-on economic development training,” Green said. “We teach about community development and planning. Students have projects and learn how to be inclusive and bring others into the process.”
He added that a lot of practitioners learn on the job, but the Delta State program tries to provide the conceptual framework along with the tools and skills to address problems that may come up in work. “We want our students to be assets to their communities,” he said.
‘A better place’
Hales says individuals going into economic development should have a genuine interest in working with communities and a desire to bring economic opportunity into a region. “The person in it for themselves or looking to get rich is in the wrong field,” he said. “They have to want to make their community a better place.”
Cynthia Wilson of Webster County is an example of someone coming into economic development from a different career. A former teacher and Mississippi State Extension Service county agent, she’s now retired and has an interest in seeing her adopted home county grow and prosper. She is director of the Webster County Development Council.
“When the opportunity came along, I was excited about being a part of it,” she said. “I’ve worked with the whole county and know people in business, agriculture and individually. In some ways, it’s not so different from what I was doing. I joined the Economic Development Council when I moved here in 1983.”
Wilson has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in home economics from Mississippi State University. She has also taken the New South Economic Development Course and other training and help available from several economic development partners.
Jack Zink is leading economic development efforts in Hancock County after a long Navy career. A native of Baltimore, Md., he earned a degree in architecture from the University of Idaho, a masters of science from Georgia Institute of Technology and an executive education certificate from Duke University. He retired from the Navy in 2003 after 10 years at the Seabees Base in Gulfport.
Zink said, “I believe my background is suited for this position and fits well with my experience managing facilities in the Navy. I was executive director of the base and of the retirement program. There were some economic development activities that we did. With base closings, it’s important to market services in the Navy when organizations are looking at possible sites.”
Zink recently attended a basic course in economic development at Georgia Tech and is working toward certification from the International Economic Development Council.
“I think it will take a year or so to get the certification,” he said. “I’m not sure how my past experience will count with respect to certification. I’m taking a series of courses and electives to prepare to sit for the exam.”
In his ninth month as executive director of the Hancock County Ports & Harbor Commission, Zink says he’s enjoying the work and things are going well.
Hales feels the certification route is valuable to those not interested in getting a master’s degree in economic development. He also stressed that additional training provides critical perspectives on strategies and tactics.
“It puts participants in touch with local and state agencies and people working in economic development to build a network. That’s huge,” he said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at firstname.lastname@example.org.