The Higher ED Blog: Economic development professionals are overworked and undercompensated
Jennifer Schnier MAES, Ec.D(F), CEcD / May 2, 2016
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has stated that the work of local economic development is “worldwide” and has proven to be effective in fostering broad-scale development. Economic development professionals (EDPs) are nimble, creative, social, and engaging. They are multi-tasking individuals with exceptional communication and presentation skills. They’re also passionate about community development. Economic developers are professionals (some accredited) who have contributed to the revitalization of communities in Ontario.
They are expected to plan and deliver projects and programs, contribute to core municipal service delivery such as infrastructure and community planning, and find funding for their activities, all while accommodating the schedules of clients, site selectors, federal agencies, Community Futures boards, as well as internal stakeholders within their organizations such as fellow department heads, board members, councillors, and staff. Plus, as time goes on, more is added to their plates. Since the 1930s, there have been five “waves” of economic development, each adding to rather than replacing the activities of the last. One of the major changes has been for practitioners to work much closer with smaller enterprises. The growth of self employment does not appear to be slowing down, and the importance of supporting small business and entrepreneurs is not declining.
Workplaces, especially in a municipal setting, maintain traditional hours while businesses and organizations outside of a government/traditional work structure are not always 9-5. This creates tensions between economic developers and their employers because those who participate in community development are unable to keep traditional hours. In fact, their work often requires off hour and off site work completion. Equally, it is difficult for employers to measure and provide accountability without defined outcomes for the work performed, which may lead them to rely on hours spent in the office as a proxy for productivity. In turn, EDPs may prefer to keep traditional office hours and work off-site during evening and weekends to avoid justifying out-of-office time and the tensions potentially created by that. EDPs thus struggle with work life balance and are increasingly stressed.
The time has come to review traditional work hours and determine how the economic development professional can continue to meet the changing needs of our economy without burning out in the meantime. This is important to me because I hear of tensions in the workplace from the many colleagues I meet at various conferences for economic development. I knew this was not an isolated problem and wanted to provide some quantifiable context to the issue. My theory is that administrators need to better understand the economic landscape to gain the necessary assurances that work can be completed by EDPs with increased levels of autonomy. In my major research paper for the University of Waterloo’s Local Economic Development master’s program, I had the opportunity to build support for my theory and explore the barriers faced by EDPs in their work environment.
The research questions of this paper were twofold: What are the current work conditions of economic developers, in terms of hours worked and work-life balance? And What can employers do to improve the work-life balance of economic developers? These questions were explored by collecting data from economic development officers in Ontario–via a survey–on work conditions, work/life balance, and employer supports for overtime work. An invitation to complete the survey was shared in a previous article for the Higher ED Blog and via the Economic Developers Council of Ontario’s email list. I received 70 eligible responses. Most were from EDPs who worked in municipal governments, but higher level governments, development corporations, the private sector, and not-for-profit organizations were represented.
What are the current work conditions of economic development professionals, in terms of hours worked and work-life balance?
The EDPs identified that they remain in the office for 69% of their regular work week. This reflects the many administrative functions that need to be completed in office, in particular the 37% of respondents who are members of their organization’s senior team. The conflict rests in the remaining 31% of their regular work day that is spent out of office.
Three quarters of the respondents said they sometimes or frequently work in the evenings, and two thirds said they sometimes or frequently work during weekends. During these non-traditional hours, respondents said they attend community meetings, check and respond to emails, and write reports. Others identified that the evenings are spent on data analysis, social media, or working with investors.
Respondents also admitted that they are highly stressed. On a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 representing high stress, the median level reported was 5. The average was 4.8. When asked if there was a specific time of year that was more stressful, 42% responded ‘yes’. They singled out that they are most stressed during budget time. The second most commonly stressful time was from January to April and again in September to November, which typically aligns with funding deadlines.
“I tend to work late at the office, so that when I go home I can pretend I’m not thinking about work”. This statement from one of the survey respondents summarizes what many economic development professionals feel about their work environment: that due to the lack of policy clarifying parameters, working 24/7 has become habitual for this cohort.
Respondents identified that on average they give over 450 hours of overtime a year. Thats over 5 weeks of work a year.
What can employers do to improve the work-life balance of economic developers?
Economic development professionals have access to overtime compensation, but respondents described problematic restrictions and a very subjective approval process that was at the discretion of the manager. Most of the survey respondents (83%) suggested that overtime was not allowed to be accumulated in an unlimited fashion to be used at a time when there was a greater ability to. For example, many employers require overtime hours accumulated within one calendar year to be used within the first 2 months of the following year. This was in direct conflict with the January to April busy time identified by the survey respondents. Some employers allowed overtime to be converted to vacation time, but the survey also showed that vacations within small offices were difficult to schedule and left higher workloads for remaining staff, which sometimes created conflict.
On average, the respondents reported that an average of 234 overtime hours per year (4.5 weeks) went uncompensated.
While programs are in place to ensure that overtime is compensated, the ability to adjust schedules and use policies to their full potential is missing. One survey respondent said “Technically, we are allowed to claim lieu time for overtime worked if it is pre-approved. However, it is extremely rare that it is approved. The informal rule is if you have an evening meeting, you can later take an equivalent amount of time during the day for personal activities”. These informal policies can create tension and inconsistency for managers and CAOs. In an environment where the priority is consistency in the workplace, other employees struggle when one employee is breaking policy. The end result is the pressure EDPs feel to forego lieu time. EDPs suggested that a greater level of autonomy for this profession in the workplace would assist them in adjusting their schedule as needed within the two week pay period. The ability to do so would significantly decrease the accumulation of overtime in the first place.
Creating better workplace policies
Economic development brings together people and resources for economic prosperity and community development. But many economic development professionals are working beyond the traditional 9-5 work model. The findings in this study identified that current policies within municipal structures and economic development agencies are not supporting of the demands on the EDP. Updated policies supporting greater autonomy for this profession would better support a work life balance.
I hope that senior managers will take from this research a better understanding of what economic development professionals do, and why current policies are not working for them. The next step is to create better procedures and policies in the workplace to support the work of this profession. Professional organizations like EDCO and EDAC should be encouraged to offer training for senior managers so that they better understand work-life strategies and how to implement them within their work environment.
Further research is needed to better articulate what a more responsive policy would look like and how such a policy could support work-life balance within the organization. Employers and employees should be encouraged to review current employment policies to see if it remains relevant, or if changes are desired. Both sides will need encouragement to change, and the clarity that comes with evidence-based insight, if they are to achieve the changes to policy and practice that will meet the evolving needs of all stakeholders.
About the author
Jennifer Schnier MAES, Ec.D(F), CEcD, recently completed a masters degree in Local Economic Development from the University of Waterloo. Jennifer is the Communications and Economics Officer at Township of Georgian Bay and lives full time in Muskoka with her husband and their five children.
About the series
Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.
Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only master’s program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.
The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.