Where do economic developers come from?
by Phil Hardwick
Published: August 5,2012
Having been in the field of economic development for more than 25 years I have seen many changes in the characteristics of those involved in the profession. One change in particular was that it seemed that those involved in economic development and chamber of commerce work were becoming more professional, or at least were coming from more professional backgrounds.
Recently, I had the opportunity to informally check on such a hypothesis by asking a group of those in attendance the 2012 Mississippi Economic Development Council (MEDC) annual summer conference about their previous occupations. The results are presented below.
Those surveyed were in attendance at the program on Friday morning of the conference. Attendees were comprised of a variety of people involved in economic development in some form. Most were economic developers or chamber of commerce professionals. Almost all were member of MEDC, which is their professional association.
The methodology in this survey was very simple. I asked a roomful of conference attendees to write down on a piece of paper the answer to this question: What was your occupation immediately prior to your entering the field of economic development? I received 122 responses. (see graphic at right).
The occupations account for 95 of the 122 listed. Some of the remaining occupations could have been classified as in the graphic. For example, “elected official” could have been included with the Government classification, and “coach” might have been included in the Management category. Nevertheless, I believe the above classifications offer a reasonable snapshot of the profession in Mississippi. If you would like to see the entire list, line-by-line, send me an email at email@example.com.
When one considers that the job duties of the typical economic developer or chamber of commerce professional involve marketing of their communities and managing related projects it is not surprising to see that marketing and management occupations are at or near the top of the list. Many of those projects involve financing, tax incentives and site preparation so it is logical that lending and engineering skills would be found in previous occupations.
Especially interesting was the listing of “student” by 8.2 percent of the respondents. That would indicate that more economic developers are coming directly into the field from colleges and universities. That is something that was not seen 25 years ago, and is an indication that economic development is coming into its own as a profession. It might also indicate that economic developers in general are younger on average than in the past. A 2003 survey of economic development organizations in Wisconsin by the University of Wisconsin revealed that most of the survey participants in that state had fairly long tenures, having been in economic development for 12 to 13 years and in their current position an average of eight years.
As with any growing profession there are standards and procedures that are becoming the norm. That leads to educational offerings from a variety of sources. In the past, someone interested in a career in economic development sought out educational offerings from professional associations in the form of seminars, workshops and certification programs. While that is still the case, colleges and universities are expanding their programs to meet the needs of the profession. The University of Southern Mississippi, in particular, is addressing the demand for more economic development professionals by providing graduate education in economic development through the Master of Science in Economic Development program and the Graduate Certificate in Economic Development. Other universities in Mississippi offer related programs and so-called Capstone courses for students to directly become involved in a local economic and community development project. A related degree is that of urban and regional planning. Jackson State University offers such a degree at the graduate level.
The Bureau of Labor Standards (BLS) does not have a specific category for economic developer, however it lists urban and regional planning as one that is closely related. The current BLS Occupation Handbook lists the median pay for urban and regional planners nationally at $63,040, and a growth of 16 percent in the profession during the period 2010 – 2020. Pay Scale Inc. reported in 2010 that economic development directors’ salaries ranged from $47,166 to $89,108 a year. A review of economic developer positions currently being advertised in Mississippi reveals that all except one require a college degree, preferably in economic development or a related field. Also, it seems that communities are hiring more economic development directors from outside the community. As I mentally run down the list of economic development directors in Mississippi I see more who were not natives of their communities than otherwise are. Again, this is a sign that those positions are being filled with persons of higher education and background qualifications.
This survey was obviously very limited in scope. However, given the professional and managerial titles listed in the occupations it does indicate that those involved in economic development come from occupations where achievement was the norm and that education is becoming more important.
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