Since I have retired, I have had the pleasure of attending several social gatherings. At each, the questions eventually turn from what I am doing now to what I did in my previous life.
I am always tempted to give a mind-numbing impressive response, such as telling someone that I used to be a Government Jedi or the state’s Resident Philosopher. But usually, I just tell them the truth, saying I was an economic developer for state government.
Saying you’re an economic developer can be a real conversation killer. (Saying you work in ED is even worse) At times, I just get the uncomfortable sound of silence, followed by a wayward glance for the nearest exit. Other times, people will just look at me and say, “Well, that must have been interesting,” and then politely excuse themselves, saying they’re suddenly not feeling well.
I don’t even get the chance to explain what an economic development professional does. Judging by the look in their eyes, they think I am that guy who gentrifies neighborhoods, tearing down affordable housing to erect overpriced, view-stealing high rises.
Worse, they confuse economic developer with an economist and think I do all those foreboding forecasts about employment, inflation and GDP. With all due respect to my boring economist friends (actually I don’t have any economist friends), I am amazed that they get more attention than economic developers at parties.
More often than not, I am left there, standing alone, stirring my drink, wishing I had done something people could understand in a word or two, like construction worker or teacher or at least a profession that would prolong the conversation.
It’s bad enough explaining it to another person. But Google will deliver the ultimate insult. Type in “role of an economic developer” and it will ask you “What do you mean by economic development?”
We must be on the same party circuit.
I know economic development means different things to different people. Ask a legislator and they will probably say you recruit companies. Ask a councilperson in a small town and they will probably ask when will Microsoft be relocating. Those in the big cities will say you create jobs for the tech industry. Those in rural communities will say you show up to all their meetings and tell them why it’s hard to attract jobs. But the average person will just nod, smile and walk away, confused as ever as to your vocation and occupation and regret even approaching you.
Having an identity crisis is an occupational hazard of being an economic developer. Those of us in the profession understand what we do. It’s a complex body of work where our role is to overcome the negative by attaining the positive in a community. Coincidentally, that also happens to be the Jedi code.
One minute we are helping people start a business, the next we are advocating changes in permitting, suggesting ideas to revitalize downtowns, struggling to retain a business, preparing a tourism marketing plan, or trying to get the local communications company to extend broadband. That job description has Jedi qualities written all over it for growing communities.
It can indeed be a thankless job on many fronts with only a few but productive victories. And yet, we persevere anyway because we know how important the work is to our communities. We know that our work is all about creating a healthy environment in a community so job creation can take place. We are focused on people so that they can expand their opportunities to make a living wage, find rewarding work and start a business and become a place for the next generation.
We may not have a PhD behind our name as economists do but we do have lots of degrees behind our names. Economic developers come from all sorts of backgrounds and majors that give different perspectives and ideas to solve problems in creative and innovative ways. Thats what makes us the guardians of a community.
We may not even have the title of economic developer. We could work in any number of professions that do the same type of work, all of which can be thankless, are rarely well rewarded and, as I can attest, very hard to describe to others in a sound bite at a party.
Regardless of our job title, our salary, our backgrounds or our responsibilities, we all have one thing in common. When something goes wrong in a community – a major employer leaves town, our children migrate elsewhere, a plant closes, vacancies appear downtown – we are usually the ones who get called and told to fix it. And when things do go right, others will quickly take the credit for it. We have to be like Jedi warriors, anonymous yet essential.
Such is our lot in life. But even so, I am proud to be an economic developer. Even if no one wants to talk to us at a party.
(Formerly known as Government Jedi)