So you want to be economic developer. Can’t say as I blame you. It’s a rewarding profession that provides self-satisfaction and can have a positive impact on a community. It’s also a stable occupation. In my many years as an economic developer, I’ve noticed very little turnover. In this letter, I’ll offer some observations and comments that you may find useful.
To begin with, let’s look at the possibilities for employment. Most medium-to-large size cities employ an economic developer and appropriate staff. Every state also has an economic development agency, usually with larger number of positions than other organizations. Utility companies, large law firms, architectural firms, chambers of commerce, trade associations, and many private companies have positions that are essentially economic development in nature. Most companies label such jobs as business development or a similar title.
Economic development is the process of increasing the wealth of a community, which is most often done through the creation, expansion and retention of jobs. Although it is all about jobs, some of the most successful economic development organizations are what’s known as umbrella organizations, meaning their divisions or activities are all under one big so-called umbrella. These often include the chamber of commerce and a community development function. In general, the bigger organization, the better for a newcomer because you will learn much more and be exposed to more variety. Check out the websites of The Alliance in Corinth, the Community Development Foundation in Tupelo, and the Area Development Partnership in Hattiesburg.
So what are the skills and knowledge needed to become a successful economic developer? A bachelor’s degree in economic development, urban planning, marketing, business administration or public administration are the most useful degrees if you are planning on seeking employment with a city or county. Real estate and finance are also excellent degrees that will be useful in economic development projects. A little tax knowledge would not hurt either. Personal skills are especially important for economic developers because they deal with all types of personalities, from elected officials to business executives to construction workers. The ability to manage time and projects is a critical skill. If you like the limelight, the profession may not be for you. Often, you set the stage for others to get the glory, so to speak. Notice that in ribbon-cuttings and groundbreakings, the economic developer is in the background.
Upward mobility and concomitant salary in the profession typically means moving on to a larger economic development organization. That’s because most economic development entities have relatively small staffs and because their executive directors tend to stay for more than the average number of years for a business organization. The national average salary for economic development managers is $77,646 as of May, 2019, according to glassdoor.com, a national jobs website that “has millions of jobs, salary information, company reviews, and interview questions – all posted anonymously by employees and job seekers.” Of course, economic developers in small towns earn substantially less.
Today’s economic development world is not without its controversies. Check out the May 19, 2019 article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Meet the Fixers Pitting States Against Each Other to Win Tax Breaks for New Factories.” Although its primary focus is about economic development incentives, it offers a glimpse at the process and procedures found in large economic development projects.
To learn more about the profession from those who practice it, consider attending the annual conference of the economic development practitioners in the state in which you are interested. In Mississippi, the Mississippi Economic Development Council annual conference is an excellent place to learn more about trends in economic development and meet economic developers. Check out www.medc.ms for registration information and more.
If you’re interested in continuing your education at the graduate level, you can’t do better than the Masters of Economic Development program at the University of Southern Mississippi.
If the above information sounds like something that appeals to you, then best wishes and good luck.
» PHIL HARDWICK is a regular Mississippi Business Journal columnist and owner of Hardwick & Associates, LLC, which provides strategic planning facilitation and leadership training services. His email is phil@philhardwick. com and he’s on the web at www.philhardwick.com.
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