If you enjoy researching and analyzing economic issues and their related data using math and statistics, making forecasts, designing policies and advising others through reports and presentations, working as an economist might be for you. We’ve interviewed three economists with very different job descriptions to give you an idea of the many possibilities this career choice offers.
Scott Anderson, Chief Economist, Bank of the West
Scott Anderson is chief economist for Bank of the West, a bank with $63 billion in assets and locations in 19 states. He has worked there since August 2012; previously, he was a director and senior economist at Wells Fargo in Minneapolis for 11 years. Before that, he worked for Moody’s Analytics and the International Monetary Fund. Anderson holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Minnesota, and a master of philosophy degree in economics and a doctorate in economics both from George Washington University. Anderson is 44. It took him 12 years to earn his degrees. He says his coursework was challenging, and he had to pass comprehensive exams in macroeconomics, microeconomics, monetary theory, international trade and finance to earn his master's degree. He also had to write and defend his dissertation to earn his Ph.D. What made the experience particularly challenging was that throughout his graduate studies, he worked as a research assistant, and after the first year, he also had a teaching fellowship.
Anderson and his bank are based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Because they are three hours behind the major government and financial centers on the East Coast, he wakes up at 5:00 am to read the news as it breaks and to review the government economic reports as they get issued. When a major report is released, such as the latest jobs report, he will email a brief analysis to his colleagues and media contacts. “I discuss what the new data mean for the economic outlook, the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy, and the markets. Following that email, it’s likely that a few journalists will call me and I’ll provide commentary to help them write their articles,” he says. He does his early morning work from home, which allows him to spend time with his children before they leave for school.
Another analytical activity for Anderson is his detailed three-page “U.S. Outlook,” which he drafts every Thursday and distributes by email early every Friday morning. This report provides a detailed forecast table of the major U.S. economic indicators, interest rates, oil prices, and the dollar over the next two years, as well as a peek at the releases for the coming week.
“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of not just being a good writer, but also being able to write quickly, concisely and in a compelling way that grabs the readers’ attention and that focuses on the most relevant information,” Anderson says.
Once Anderson is at his office, he meets with his executive team and briefs them on economic and financial trends as well as the upside and downside risks that they should be focusing on to help the bank succeed in today’s economic and banking environment. In between meetings, he usually works on a presentation for an upcoming speaking event.
“You’d be surprised at how much public speaking comes with being an economist for a company like ours,” Anderson says. “For anyone considering this kind of position, I’d suggest taking some public-speaking classes or presentation training. It’s important to keep the presentations lively and interesting, and to keep the audience engaged,” he says, and adds that his presentation training also helps in his conversations with reporters.
His job frequently takes him to the other states where his bank operates, where he spends time with clients and prospects, answering their questions about the economy and its major drivers. “I enjoy breaking down what could be perceived as a complicated economic issue and helping people not only understand what’s happening but also if and how it impacts their own financial situation,” Anderson says.
“On any given day I wear many hats: I’m a mathematician, a pundit, a researcher, a writer and a teacher, he says. “It’s hard to say there’s a ‘typical’ day for me, but the variety and excitement is definitely one of the things I love most about my job.”
Anderson tries to balance work with spending time with his family and friends. He tends to work at least 60 hours a week, but very much enjoys the work. “Although I’ve been an economist for more than 20 years, I never get tired of digging through economic and financial data, connecting the dots, thinking through various scenarios and providing my own point of view of where the economy is headed,” he says.
Dean D. Bellas, Land-Use Economist, Urban Analytics
When most people hear the word “economist,” they think of professionals who work for the federal government or at a major U.S. bank or Wall Street firm. But these aren’t the only career paths for economists, says Dean D. Bellas, 53, an urban and regional land-use economist for Urban Analytics in Alexandria, Va. Urban Analytics is a real estate and urban planning consulting firm that provides high-level urban development analytical services.
Regional economists like Bellas specialize in analyzing the dynamics between regions, such as the relationship between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore or the relationship between New York City and Chicago, he says. The region being analyzed can be as large as a country or continent or as small as a state, county or neighborhood. Within the field of regional economics, Bellas specializes in the fiscal and economic impacts of land-use development at the local and regional levels. Bellas holds a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration from Western New England University with a concentration in finance (1982), a master of urban and regional planning from George Washington University (1993), and a doctorate in public policy with a concentration in regional economic development policy from George Mason University (2005).
“A common question in my field is whether new growth—new development—pays for itself,” Bellas says. For example, if a developer wanted to build 500 new houses in Fairfax County, Virginia, he would be asked to analyze and calculate the total tax revenues—e.g., real estate taxes, sales taxes and meals taxes—generated for the county by these new houses and residents. He would then be asked to compare these revenues to the county’s cost of providing public services—e.g., public safety, public schools, and parks and recreation services—to those new residents.
Bellas’s services include asset management, financial modeling, market studies, due diligence studies and project feasibility studies, among others. His long client list includes the Arcadia Development Company, the government of the District of Columbia, NTS/Residential Properties, the Prince William County Office of Planning and the South Side Neighborhood Development Corporation.
Bellas’s work requires uninterrupted blocks of quiet time to work on complex written research reports and client engagements. He collects and analyzes socio-economic data, runs complex calculations, and interprets the findings for both private-sector and public-sector clients. He also extensively reads academic journals and financial newspapers to keep abreast of current topics in his field.
On a typical day, Bellas gets to the office at 8:00 am and spends an hour reading and replying to emails, returning client phone calls and prioritizing the day’s activities and work assignments. During the next half hour, he discusses the day’s activities and work assignments with his employees and conducts business development, which means sales and marketing to new clients and maintaining good relationships with existing clients. From 9:30 am to 11:30 am, he works on client engagements and research reports and attends client meetings, either in person or by phone. In the half hour before lunch, he again reads and replies to emails, returns client’s phone calls, and discusses and reviews progress on work assignments with employees. Employees spend a great deal of time each day either collecting socioeconomic data from across the United States or analyzing the data using the company’s proprietary computational models. Bellas discusses with his employees how to obtain data never before collected or how to analyze available data in a completely new way.
After an hour lunch break, Bellas spends the next two hours working on client engagements and research reports and attending client meetings. He uses complex simulation modeling to analyze issues such as the economic and fiscal impacts of a proposed 3 million square foot training facility for the federal government, new soccer fields for a youth soccer organization in Virginia, and the jobs and public revenue that might be created by a proposed new casino in the mid-Atlantic region. These complex projects require the analysis of huge amounts of socioeconomic data, so Bellas and his staff spend a good part of a typical day collecting and analyzing data. He then spends another hour on emails, phone calls, discussions with employees and business development. Finally, he spends the last two hours of his day on client engagements. He also spends Saturday mornings catching up on client engagements, reading articles on complex public policy issues related to local economic development, performing the administrative tasks involved in running his company and grading exams or reading papers.
In addition to running Urban Analytics, Bellas is an adjunct faculty member in the real estate development program within the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He teaches course in Urban Economics, Real Estate Finance and Real Estate Investment to graduate students. On the days when he teaches, he usually spends one to two hours before class preparing for his lecture, plus three hours on each class.
His office culture is relaxed, and his employees are able to have flexible schedules and to prioritize personal matters as long as their work is delivered to the client on time. Bellas himself is able to work anywhere, including from his satellite office in Loutraki, Greece.
Mike McMahon, Senior Manager of Rates, Economics and Energy Risk Management, Snohomish County Public Utility District, Everett, Wash.
Mike McMahon, 64, is the senior manager of rates, economics and energy risk management for the Snohomish County Public Utility District in Everett, Wash. His primary concerns are rates and risk management for an electric utility that covers a 2,200 square-mile area north of Seattle and that has a $712 million annual budget. He holds a bachelor of arts in economics from Western Washington University, and he holds both a master of arts and a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Washington.
He typically works from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, and his days consist of providing economic analysis on both recurring and temporary issues. “Yesterday, a story came out that our biggest customer, a major manufacturer with worldwide sales, is going to increase production,” McMahon says. “I spent part of the morning trying to determine what this might mean for our energy sales and the local economy.” This morning, he is working on a PowerPoint presentation for an upcoming meeting with the Board of Commissioners to discuss passing on a power-cost increase to the utility’s customers. He has to collect information from different parts of the company on things such as customer usage patterns and power costs in order to determine the impacts on the utility’s various customer classes. Working on this presentation will occupy much of his time over the next 10 days, he says.
The recurring issues McMahon handles include sales forecasting, which “is largely an exercise in the microeconomics of demand analysis with some regional multiplier analysis,” McMahon says. Another of his recurring roles, that of energy risk manager, “is almost perfectly suited to an economist,” he says. “It brings together the concepts of supply and demand with the statistical concepts of probability distributions.” He also chairs a short weekly meeting of the Energy Risk Management Committee. In the days preceding the meeting, he supervises two analysts in updating a risk model that he builds and maintains to quantify the utility’s power-market risk exposure. He also provides a formal quarterly report to the Board of Commissioners on the Energy Risk Management Committee’s activities.
He also attends biweekly, hourly meetings of the short-term power-supply strategy group, which considers the latest information on the utility’s generating resources and power demands. At the meeting, “we decide on our short-term power purchases or sales into the wholesale power market,” McMahon says. He is also frequently asked to analyze legislative bills for the utility’s legislative affairs group.
Occasionally, he makes presentations on the economic analysis of current issues such as carbon pricing in the context of reducing greenhouse gas emissions or the recent federal budget and what it might mean for the utility and its customers. He also attends and often makes presentations at biweekly Board of Commissioners meetings.
His workdays can run much longer than his usual 8-to-5 day when he’s preparing for major commission decisions such as chancing the prices charged to customers, and he occasionally works weekends. He can schedule his vacations fairly freely as long as he keeps upcoming commission-decision timelines in mind.
“I would tell students taking economics classes that the concepts they are learning actually work and can be applied in the business world,” McMahon says. Throughout the year, I’m applying the concepts of price and income elasticities of demand, discounting and present value analysis, opportunity costs, and multiplier analysis.” He advises economics students to take classes in statistics, accounting and law. “And if you want to be influential, be prepared to talk in front of people,” he says. “The outlook that an economist can bring to most issues will capture people’s attention and they will want to hear more.”
The Bottom Line
Being an economist isn’t just about analyzing numbers; you have to be able to communicate clearly. The career offers opportunities to work with all types of data and to work for a wide variety of firms. Anderson, Bellas and McMahon’s are three economists who have forged careers in different ways.