The Business Economist at Work: The National Federation of Independent Business

By Dunkelberg, William C. | Business Economics, October 1999 | Go to article overview

The Business Economist at Work: The National Federation of Independent Business


Dunkelberg, William C., Business Economics


Organizations have simple goals, and the world is complex. For every action there is some sort of reaction (borrowing a bit of physics). And thus the need for the "organizational" economist, a person who "interprets" the complex world to the organization and who helps anticipate the world's reaction to organizational changes and helps to plan those strategies. The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) is an organization with over 600,000 member firms. It represents the interests of small business in Washington and in fifty state capitals. NFIB was founded in 1943 to provide a stronger voice for small business in a political world where "big business" exercised a strong voice that often did not recognize the differences between them and the smaller firms that constitute the small business community. According to the Small Business Administration, more than 90 percent of all employers in the United States have fewer than twenty employees, and 98 percent have fewer than 500. These firms, taken together, would constitute the third largest economy in the world, after those of the entire United States and Japan.

Research Staff

NFIB is in an unusual position - it generates its own unique data, using the membership as a source of information. It has, since 1973, built its own time series data through the use of quarterly (now monthly) surveys of its member firms. About one of every eight employers in the United States is a member. In addition, NFIB has undertaken a number of specialized issue-focused studies, including studies of the impact of the energy shortage, banking deregulation, and health insurance regulation (US News credits NFIB with the failure of the Clinton health care initiative, a challenge that engaged the economics staff from strategic planning, e.g., what should our position be, to data collection, education, testimony, press coverage and the preparation of a monograph).

NFIB does not maintain a large staff of economists. Indeed, there is only one (me), who works closely with a research-oriented political scientist with strong Washington, DC, experience and an assistant or two. When specialized studies are needed, we "make a deal" with the best available specialist in the field, providing data in exchange for an "objectively" written monograph. Our collaboration with Mike Boskin years ago on Social Security is an example of this partnering process. This allows NFIB to have all of academia as its staff and to provide academics and other research organizations with a rich set of data on a segment of the U.S. economy that was neglected by government data collection initiatives for decades.

Skills Required

The skill requirements for the position are probably typical of those for most senior economist jobs. First are the communication skills. Both oral and written skills are essential. Analytical skills are also important and closely tied to presentation skills. You have to learn what is important to show and how to show it to your audience. Complex analytical programs may provide insights, but even these must be presented in creative, clever and simple ways. Taking advantage of NABE's many skill seminars is a must for developing your communication, presentation and analytical skills. NFIB has a particular need for skills in the area of survey research that are not typical of most senior economist jobs. However, the use of "survey data" is growing in many of the functional areas in which business economics is practiced, including market research and strategic planning.

Perhaps the most important skill to develop is effective communication. Take every opportunity you have to improve your presentation skills. You need these to sell yourself and your ideas. There are internal battles over budgets to win, clients to entertain and inform, Congressional committees to convince, the press to inform, and your internal clients to serve. I have done "one-minute" editorials for years for radio.

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