For the past 40 years, the University of Southern Mississippi has been offering a Master of Science in Economic Development (MSED) program aimed at honing the talents of people who work to help communities prosper and grow. Graduates are working at many of the most successful economic development organizations in Mississippi and other states.
“The master’s program in economic development at Southern Mississippi has a rich history and is highly regarded around the [country] among economic development practitioners,” said Chad E. Newell, president of the Area Development Partnership in Hattiesburg. “The firm foundation was laid by Dr. Ron Swager, who led the program for 20 years. Many professors, students, and alums have invested significantly in the program to help build and maintain its reputation over the last 40 years. As a graduate of the program, I am proud of the lineage and look forward to the program’s prosperous future.”
The MSED is the only program like it in the state, and one of only about a half dozen in the United States that focus on local economic development, said Chad R. Miller, Ph.D, director of the program in the USM College of Business & Economic Development. The program has a 100 percent placement rate.
“We just really can’t get enough good people coming in to meet the demand,” Miller said. “I hate to turn away these good job opportunities. The students who come in with good soft skills are really employable after graduation. We do internships and regularly I don’t have enough students to fill these, many of which are in rural communities. We are trying to get these communities to identify the sharp kids who are going away to college who might be interested in economic development, and educate them so they can turn around and come back home to make a difference.”
Another graduate of the program, Ashley Edwards, president and CEO of the Gulf Coast Business Council, said the curriculum prepared him to be a thought leader for the new economy–one that combines a variety of innovative approaches aimed at creating holistic economic sustainability in a region.
“I use the lessons learned at USM every day … in our ongoing work to promote the attraction of talent and capital to Coastal Mississippi,” Edwards said.
Economic development is much more competitive today, particularly for rural communities. Miller said it is a real challenge to compete. Talent management and quality of place have become huge factors.
It used to be that companies would locate in a community and the work force would follow. But Miller said these days it works the other way around: Companies follow the talent.
“So, you need to be attracting and retaining a skilled workforce,” Miller said. “It is important to look at what companies prioritize as the most important site selection factor, which is usually having a skilled workforce. You need to have that environment where the skilled workforce wants to go because they can go about anywhere and get a job.”
The economic development field has evolved a lot in the past 20 years. There is a lot more science to it than before.
“It used to be cigars and backroom deals,” Miller said. “Now companies and site selectors are becoming very sophisticated with data analysis. They will come to a community knowing everything about that community before they come. That is why websites are so important. Most communities are getting screened out before they even know about it because they don’t have good data on their websites.”
It is important, also, to show that you have done your homework on the companies before they come for a site visit. An example Miller gives is the preparation done by Joe Max Higgins to attract the Yokohama tire plant and 2,000 jobs to the Golden Triangle.
CBS News 60 Minutes reported that Yokohama evaluated 3,100 counties across the U.S.
“It was Higgins’ job to prove to Yokohama’s chairman that the Golden Triangle was the company’s best bet,” 60 minutes reported. “He had his employees learn about Japanese culture, and he personally studied up on tire manufacturing, so he could speak to Yokohama workers about the process.”
Higgins also made sure that each of his employee’s vehicles used to transport the Yokohama officials was outfitted with Yokohama tires.
An advantage of the MCED program is that most of it is done online in the evening allowing people who are employed regular office hours to attend. The core classes are delivered with a weekly evening webinar.
“With the webinar, we can bring in speakers from across the country or the world,” Miller said. “Students also come in one weekend in the fall and one weekend in the spring and have a face-to-face gathering. People will fly in for the weekend. Networking and personal connections are so important in economic development, so you need to keep some of the face-to-face. For the in-person training, students do group projects and guided exercises where get to work with their colleagues. It is likely the people in the class will be working closely and relying on each other for many years.”
One take-home lesson is economic development is a team sport. Economic developers need to be team leaders to get local, county and state elected officials, school board members and utility companies to make the best appeal to potential new or expanding businesses.
Part of that effort is to enhance the area’s quality of life. Businesses want to locate in areas that have good schools, prepared sites, shopping and entertainment options, and a reasonable cost of living. One place where Mississippi can sometimes have an edge is in the cost of living.
Students are also taught the ethical code.
“You need to act and have the best interests of the community in mind,” Miller said. “If do something and it comes out in the paper, will you be happy about it? Unfortunately, there have been a few ethical issues involving conflict of interests with economic developers. You hear about them every so often when people abuse their civic duty. We emphasize ethical behavior and doing what is right for the community.”
While the economic development arena in Mississippi is largely dominated by white men, Miller said that is changing. He is seeing more women and African Americans in the MCED program and is seeing more advance in economic development organizations.
“There is going to be a lot of retirement coming up,” he said. “I’m optimistic we will see more diversity in the profession with women and African Americans. The profession is becoming more diverse, but it just takes time.”
USM has also joined with three other universities—Clemson University in South Carolina, Texas Christian University and the University of Alabama–to create the Advanced Economic Development Leadership executive education course, an experiential two-week program designed specifically for mid- and senior-level economic developers who want to examine contemporary issues on a deeper level. For more information, see https://advancedeconomicdevelopmentleadership.com/.
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