Economists are experts in the social science of economics, which analyzes the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services by society. Their job typically involves some combination of research, analysis, and/or forecasting. The types of things they research and analyze include historical trends and economic indicators such as interest rates, energy costs, business cycles, and employment levels. They typically use or maintain databases and develop models to make projections on future growth, interest rates, unemployment, or inflation.
Most economists focus on practical applications of economic policy. Many of them make regular use of mathematical models to help predict answers to questions involving the effects of inflation rates, tax legislation, or some other social phenomenon on unemployment levels or general economic health. They use their understanding of economic relationships to provide advice to businesses, government agencies, and other organizations.
Duties of economists are largely dependent on where and for whom they work. Many economists devise tools that can be used to obtain or analyze data. Economists often prepare reports, including tables and charts, which depict economic and statistical concepts in a clear and meaningful way. Typical other duties include the following:
- Provide advice and consultation on economic relationships
- Make recommendations on policies or plans to solve economic problems or interpret markets
- Formulate economic projections
- Develop economic guidelines and standards
- Prepare reports to explain economic phenomena and forecast market trends
- Supervise research projects
There are several specializations within the general field of economics. Although all types of economists need a good general knowledge of basic economic principles, specialists tend to focus on certain specific aspects of economics. Some of these specialists are listed here:
- Industrial economists analyze the market structure of particular industries and market decisions of competitive firms
- Monetary economists study the financial and banking systems
- Labor economists analyze the reasons for unemployment and the effects of changing demographic trends on labor markets
- Public finance economists concern themselves with the role of the government and the effects of budget deficits, tax cuts, and welfare policies on the economy
- International economists focus on exchange rates and the effects of various trade policies on international financial markets
- Macroeconomists focus on the economy as a whole, analyzing how historical trends might affect forecasting of future trends in areas such as economic growth, unemployment, inflation, productivity, and investment
- Microeconomists study the supply and demand decisions of individuals and firms and make recommendations on maximization of profits
- Econometricians investigate all areas of economics and formulate economic models by applying mathematical techniques such as calculus, game theory, and regression analysis
- Market Research Analysts focus on the potential sales of a product or service by analyzing data on past sales to predict future sales and by gathering data on competitor pricing, sales, and methods of marketing and distribution
Economists have widely varying work schedules which usually depend on their specialty and their employer. They most often work alone, relying on computers and statistical charts to do research and write reports, but in some cases they are integral parts of research teams. There can be some pressure associated with the job, mostly in the form of deadlines and tight schedules which must be met. When this is the case, overtime work can be common. They are often called upon to produce special reports and to attend meetings or conferences. Those economists who work in academia tend to have flexible work schedules and often divide their time among teaching, research, consulting, and administration. For some types of economist, frequent travel may be necessary.
Perhaps the most important skill needed by a good economist at any level is a close attention to detail, which is necessary for the large amounts of precise data analysis that must be done. Economists also need strong computer skills as well as quantitative abilities required for complex research. In order to be able to study independently and solve problems successfully, a good economist should be both patient and persistent. As is the case in many professions, good communication and writing skills are also very important, as economists must be able to present their findings clearly and concisely both orally and in writing.
The U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (USDL BLS) forecasts employment growth of economists to substantially match that of the average occupation over the next decade. There is expected to be a continually robust demand for economists in general; however, overall job growth in this field may be tempered somewhat by a slow growth or decline of many government sectors, where the bulk of economists tend to be employed.
Employment is expected to grow most rapidly in private industry, especially for those economists who work in consulting services. Many corporations prefer to hire economic consultants instead of keeping an economist on their staff. Either way, companies will encounter a growing need for economic expertise due to the expanding complexity of the global economy and an increasing reliance on quantitative methods for analyzing and forecasting sales, business, and other economic trends. Not surprisingly, economists with master's or Ph.D. degrees, especially those who also have good communications skills, should have the best job opportunities.
Economist Degrees, Certification, and Licensing
Although there is no legally-mandated educational or licensing requirement for economists, the minimum qualification for a career in practical terms is a bachelor's degree. Higher degrees, however, are required for many positions. To work for the Federal Government, candidates for entry-level economist positions need a bachelor's degree with a minimum of 21 semester hours of economics and 3 hours of statistics, accounting, or calculus. Advancement to more responsible positions usually requires a more advanced degree. Many private sector economist jobs require a master's degree or Ph.D. in economics.
The importance of quantitative skills in this profession requires aspiring economists to strongly consider courses in mathematics, statistics, econometrics, sampling theory and survey design, and computer science as part of their undergraduate curriculum. Other very useful courses, if offered, would be microeconomics, macroeconomics, and econometrics. Courses at the graduate level might include a higher focus on specializations; for example, international economics and labor economics. Students who intend to specialize should make an effort to select graduate schools that are strong in the specialties that interest them.
Some schools help graduate students find internships or part-time employment before graduation. This is an ideal way for aspiring economists to gain experience gathering and analyzing data, conducting interviews or surveys, and writing reports on their findings. The experience gained can prove invaluable later in obtaining a full-time position in the field because much of the economist's initial tasking may center on these duties. After acquiring more work experience, economists are typically assigned their own research projects.
- National Association for Business Economics
- "The Economist" Magazine online
- Journal of Applied Econometrics
- American Economic Review
- Canadian Journal of Economics
- Global Economic Calendar
- Congressional Budget Office (CBO)
- Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA)
- American Economic Association
- Council of Economic Advisers (CEA)
More than half of all economists in the U.S. are employed by some government agency in either the Federal Government or at the state or local level. Other large employers include international organizations (e.g., the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and United Nations), colleges and universities, scientific research and development services, and various types of consulting firms.
Schools for Economists are listed in the column to the left.