Aiming beyond the Box: Bringing out Economists' Transferable Skills

Article excerpt

In recent years, I have had the opportunity to teach undergraduate students preparing to enter the professional world on academic internships. For individuals with considerable work background, today's rocky business environment is bringing challenges similar to those faced by new entrants in the labor market. As experienced employees seek avenues that diverge from their previous job titles, they may branch out from positions as economists or as economic or financial analysts. The following discussion focuses on ideas that may be useful in these pursuits and looks at transferable skills--the skills associated with economists in particular--and strategies to leverage these distinctive skills for additional opportunities.

Richard Bolles provides numerous strategies for career moves in his classic book, What Color Is Your Parachute? A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers [2009]. Bolles' "life-changing" approach, based on John Crystal's work, involves reflection and analysis of one's own desires and skills before embarking on the job hunt. For those with economic training, this strategy may sound a bit self indulgent, as well as impractical, because one clearly needs to focus on the realities of the market. However, by starting in this way, individuals may widen the options that they might happily pursue, instead of limiting possibilities to what is clearly available (or, unfortunately, not available) in their previous line of work.

Bolles proposes that his readers write stories about their experiences that illustrate their achievements, whether in a paid or unpaid job, or in any life situation. An economist, for example, might write about putting together a corporate presentation to a new audience--or about a challenge in a completely different setting, such as leading a group of teenagers on an overnight trip or putting together a silent auction for a charity fundraiser. The point is to choose situations that were fulfilling and then to consider the skills that were used. (1) For the business presentation scenario, the skills could include analyzing the audience's interests, targeting information sources, collecting data, designing the visual materials, writing the speech, and engaging with the audience. In an overnight expedition, a leader would have needed to choose the destination, recruit assistance, find accommodations, plan the activities, determine the budget, coordinate transportation, motivate the participants, and maintain their safety. By developing numerous stories, individuals can learn about skills that they may never have thought about in a job context. The overnight trip illustrates a variety of managerial and interpersonal skills, for example.

Bolles provides a number of exercises throughout the book that help in identifying and evaluating one's talents. His approach is multipronged, such that job seekers are encouraged to analyze their fields of interest, geographical choices, and other preferences. The importance of looking at skills and other personal and situational factors is also presented by John Mullins [2009] in an article that provides a range of information resources.

1. The Skills of an Economist

Job descriptions (including our own) can give one a good idea of the skills currently used in a particular niche. The Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), offers more perspectives and profiles a range of occupational categories (for example, "Management," "Professional," "Service," "Sales"). "Economists" are listed under the "Professional" job heading. The section describes the activities typically done by economists, including data collection, analysis, and forecasting, and talks about requirements, such as being focused on details and having strong written and oral communication skills:

  They may conduct research, collect and analyze data, monitor
  economic trends, or develop forecasts. …