This blog originally appeared on December 31, 2015 on IowaBiz.com.
I recently had the opportunity to speak to a college class taking a course on economic development. Afterward, I inquired with the professor about what other courses in the field were available to students at the institution. He told me there weren’t any; this was it.
Hurt my feelings a little bit.
When I attended college in the early 2000’s, there were few if any undergraduate economic development major programs in the U.S. Today, as universities and colleges race to create new curriculum streams to entice an incoming student demographic with more post-secondary choices than ever, a handful of non-online undergrad programs have emerged, but, as far as the Internet tells me, it’s still less than 25. Graduate programs are a bit more prevalent, but those dedicated to economic development specifically and not, for example, urban and regional planning, remain mostly scarce.
Why so few programs dedicated to an industry which is more and more in demand of qualified professional leaders? At first glance, we might blame the relative youth of the economic development industry- I’ve written before in this space about the 1970’s origins of the economic development profession. But dozens, maybe hundreds of industries have spawned wide-ranging academic program tails in the last forty years- from personal computing to nanotechnology. So why so few programs dedicated to a profession which in the U.S. alone employs more than 500,000?
To be sure, half a million or so practitioners in a given profession does not a major make, but as global competition for investment and job creation in every community in the country grows, demand for qualified economic developers is expected to rise. Currently, the International Economic Development Council’s [IEDC] Certified Economic Developer [CEcD] designation stands as the recognized standard for certification of professional economic developers- CEcDs must possess at least five years of experience and proceed through a four-year training program via either the University of Oklahoma Economic Development Institute or a sister program administered by IEDC before sitting for an exam and oral test.
Will sufficient demand for entry-level economic development professionals be generated by the marketplace so as to motivate the establishment of more undergraduate economic development major programs in American colleges and universities? Today the transient nature of so many economic development jobs- especially in rural areas- places pressure on local boards and commissions to simply find someone professionally capable and able to learn on the job instead of a candidate with specific pedagogic qualifications. While more young people entering the workforce with economic development degrees may increase the supply pool for rural economic development organizations to choose their leaders and staff from in theory, I’m reminded of the well-chronicled challenges rural communities have in recruiting other professionals like dentists and attorneys- challenges I’ve witnessed personally living in rural communities- which gives me pause about whether more degree-granting in the field would serve as a salve to the staffing challenges these organizations face.
It’s a struggle the industry has dealt with for many years- the multiplicity of academic and professional backgrounds economic developers come from is huge and contributes to structural challenges within the industry like leadership turnover, inconsistent professional development design and public policy deserts. Certainly, a logical undergraduate and post-graduate academic path would contribute to an increased level of skillset consistency and a general improvement of the profession’s visibility.
The University of Iowa offers a Music Therapy certification as part of its Bachelor of Music degree program. Music therapists do incredible work; I have personally witnessed the impact these professionals have on the ailing and recovering. According to the Iowa Chapter of Music Therapy, there are 90 board certified music therapists in Iowa.
There are no economic developer undergraduate programs or certifications at Iowa colleges or universities. The Professional Developers of Iowa- the state’s largest economic development trade group- has more than 400 members and estimates suggest there are more than 2,000 practicing economic developers in Iowa.
How do we reconcile this? First, by resisting drawing any kind of direct comparison; music therapists and economic developers address vastly different issues in their communities. But the fact remains that we have in Iowa a profession with no undergraduate path with 20 times more practitioners than another with such a path. Such a dynamic suggests to economic developers in Iowa and beyond that work remains to be done to establish the sort of professional legitimacy and post-secondary instructional urgency necessary to inspire institutions of higher education to consider degree or certificate program offerings in the field
Brent Willett, CEcD, is executive director of Iowa's Cultivation Corridor. Contact him: