The Higher ED Blog: Charting your career path in economic development
Aileen Murray Ec.D. (F), Mellor Murray Consulting / November 21, 2016
Earlier this month, Aileen Murray spoke at the Economic Development Program’s Year 3 course on a variety of topics related to the economic development profession. This article is an expanded version of her discussion on career pathways for economic developers, and mentorship as a way to develop those pathways.
So you’ve just landed a job in economic development. Congratulations! Now, how do you go about making this job the first step in a successful career?
Just as careers in economic development have many entryways, the career path is broad and varied. Economic developers are by the nature of the job, polymaths or persons of wide knowledge. This knowledge can be applied in many different directions.
The breadth of options can be equally liberating and overwhelming. Drawing from my experience in municipal government and private practice—and the paths chosen by my many friends and colleagues–I’ve attempted to map these options. Below, I’ve also made the case for developing a rich pool of mentors and connections. Hopefully, both will help make charting your path easier and more effective.
Oh, the places you’ll go!
A conventional path for an economic developer is to assume more and more responsibilities in the department or corporation, lead a team and eventually the economic development department or corporation. Alternatively, economic developers may start at a smaller municipality or organization and move to a larger region or organization to take on additional responsibilities. Many municipal Directors of Economic Development build on their municipal administration expertise to become Chief Administrative Officers.
The skills that make someone a successful economic developer also make him or her a strong candidate for roles outside the municipality or economic development corporation. Economic developers have paved successful careers in regional, provincial and federal economic development departments. EDOs have established careers in intergovernmental agencies, foundations and policy organizations. Public office, either in the constituency office or as an elected official, is also an option.
There are economic development practitioners in business and workforce development associations, post-secondary institutions, property development, sector based associations, non-profit organizations, consulting firms and throughout the private sector.
Economic developers develop skills in sales, entrepreneurship, marketing and communications that can be applied to many private sector organizations. The experience developed through collaboration with various stakeholders helps the economic developer develop a strong understanding of governance, consultation and community engagement processes and practices. While planning the logistics of a myriad of workshops, award ceremonies, media events, tours, missions and information sessions make economic developers seasoned event planners.
From property development to website projects, economic development professionals often have excellent project management skills which can be applied in many different positions.
The economic development officer has ample opportunities to hone their research, reporting writing and public speaking abilities, which can be applied to a broad cross section of industries and roles.
Projects in workforce development, recruitment, screening and management can provide skills that apply to positions in human resources and recruitment.
Individuals with financial skills, including reading and interpreting financial statements and analyzing company performance, are highly valued in private and non-profit organizations. Grant and proposal writing skills are also valued in a variety of non-profit and charitable organizations.
Broader economic development collaboration in community development programs, resident attraction, tourism development, social services, infrastructure development and post-secondary education broaden the career opportunities exponentially.
Often the hardest part of paving the career path is capturing the diversity of skills on a resume. My former colleagues have moved into roles as consultants, elected officials, CAOs, alumni directors, executive directors, entrepreneurs, human resources directors, community college administrators, board directors, C level executives, hospital administrators, culture and recreation managers, foundation directors, procurement specialists, consumer relations professionals, lobbyists, professors, project managers, land developers, hotel managers, craft brewers, government relations advisors and professional fund raisers. The opportunities are inexhaustible.
Mentors as guides
Mentorship can provide a source of education and networking as you navigate through your career. In an industry based on relationships, mentorship is particularly important. Unlike traditional thinking about a mentor and mentee relationship, establishing a network of connections can be particularly helpful in career development.
Economic development officers benefit from a rich pool of potential mentors.
The municipal economic development function touches all parts of the organization. By forging a relationship with individuals across municipal departments, the economic development officer is better positioned to understand the community’s assets and competitive position. These connections are also an opportunity to educate your colleagues on economic development and identify ways to support each other’s departmental objectives.
Another key source of career mentors is the network of economic development practitioners across the province or country. Economic developers are a very generous group. I have found our fellow EDOs to be great sources of advice, happy to share their experience and connections. I still connect with the people I first met in Year 1 and 2 training through the University of Waterloo.
My volunteer work on regional committees and provincial and national associations has given me a broader perspective and greater exposure to the different challenges and initiatives across the country. There are some valuable lessons to learn through the wide variety of economic development programs and activities implemented across the Country.
It also provided an opportunity to get to know individuals who have become great sources of information, career development and referrals for career opportunities. Some of the most valuable lessons can come from organizations or individuals whose experiences or challenges are very different from our own.
The connections with elected officials can be very rewarding. Successful economic development organizations have formal and more informal discussions with their political leaders to provide education on the practice of economic development. Council members and other elected officials can provide insight into their perspective and considerations on economic development programs and policies.
There are also the myriad of contacts that economic developers make in their communities including leaders of industry associations, finance, business, education, culture, non-profit, labour and health care organizations which can provide unique insights and perspective.
The mentor/mentee relationship is not one sided. We are all learners, teachers and doers. Mentors benefit from talking to individuals who will challenge conventional thinking, ask questions and bring a new and varied perspective to the profession.
As economic development evolves, seasoned economic developers have much to learn from those new to the profession. Economic development offices are striving to become more diverse organizations, with new opportunities and approaches to building the prosperity of our country. The newer economic development officers can also play an important role mentoring the economic development staff on new industries and business models.
They may also play a leading role in some very practical innovations in data management, web design, app development, social media and new media. They bring innovative approaches and a diversity of thought and practice to every aspect of our industry. They also bring a new energy and excitement that is infectious.
So, welcome to the world of economic development. It’s an exciting and evolving profession. You have much to gain and contribute to our future wherever your career takes you.
About the author
Aileen Murray is the president of Mellor Murray Consulting, specializing in economic development, strategic planning, tourism, workforce development and marketing. Community builder, trusted advisor and coach, Aileen combines 15+ years of hands-on economic development experience and a decade of consulting experience to develop practical, achievable strategies and programs.
Aileen served as the head of Middlesex County Economic Development for five years. She worked with Chatham-Kent Economic Development Services for a decade, culminating as the Acting Director. Prior to joining Chatham-Kent, Aileen was a Business Planning Consultant for Alpha Services Group specializing in marketing and strategic planning. She also has tenures with the Cadillac Fairview Corporation and Carlton Cards Ltd.
Aileen has a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Windsor. She has an economic development certificate from the University of Waterloo. She received professional Economic Development Certification from the Economic Development Association of Canada in 2003 and Fellowship in 2005.
Aileen is the Board Treasurer for the Economic Developers’ Association of Canada. She is a Past President of the Economic Developers’ Council of Ontario and a member of the International Economic Development Council and the Project Management Institute.
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 1987, the Master of Economic Development and Innovation (MEDI) is one of the only graduate programs in Canada focused exclusively on economic development. Students learn economic development theory and practice, and are exposed to leading edge knowledge, tools, and approaches to address contemporary challenges in cities and communities across Canada and internationally.
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.