Talent Development for Economic Developers

As Michigan’s robust economic recovery continues to set the pace for the nation, our client companies are all bringing their talent issues forward.  The challenge is so great that Governor Rick Snyder’s recent Economic Summit quickly turned into a talent development discussion.  Across Michigan economic development organizations and their partners are working tirelessly to address this barrier to growth.  All of this attention focused on the talent needs of our clients begs the question:  what are we doing to grow the talent pool within the economic development profession?

Being an economic developer is an extraordinarily rewarding career opportunity.  We have the ability to migrate between private and public sector domains, impacting corporate decisions as well as public policy.  We can draw energy from the upstart entrepreneurs we assist.  We are leaders in our community, helping to shape the vision of our region and towns for generations to come.  And we can drive by projects and take great pride in knowing we had an impact on the lives of those people who parked their cars in that company lot that day.

All the research shows that the younger generation today is seeking out significance.  They want to belong to a team that is making an impact.  Beyond making widgets or drafting code, the next generation wants to feel a part of something that is changing the world.  Why do you think Google encourages staffers to take time off to volunteer?  The economic development profession offers significance.  This is incredibly rewarding work.  So how can we attract and retain more of the best and brightest to work alongside us?  Here are some of my experiences that may prove useful to you:

  • Internships:  My career started as an intern at Greater Gratiot Development, Inc.  In a ‘pay it forward’ kind of way, I have run an internship program at Lakeshore Advantage.  Though the interns have not stuck within economic development, they have made a strong contribution to the success of our organization.  We just interviewed 4 outstanding candidates for this summer and will be adding two to the team—a very cost effective way to bring new talent and new ideas into the organization.
  • Mentorship:  My career has been filled with great mentors.  At each stop, people have generously given of their time and talent to help me develop my career.  Too many to list.  Who are you mentoring today?  MEDA has launched a new Young Professionals Group that is seeking out mentors—sign up with Cassandra today!
  • Flexibility:  Our team at Lakeshore Advantage is outstanding.  We have been able to hire great talent, largely out of industry.  To be honest, our compensation package is average.  We make up for this by offering a flexible work environment.
  • Leadership:  Our team is also active in the community, taking leadership roles on a variety of initiatives.  This reinforces their importance to the team and the community, gives them a development opportunity and helps expand their network.  All of this is beneficial to the organization too!
  • Training:  We can all utilize MEDA even more than we already do.  As Chair of MEDA’s Education Committee, I am always open to new ideas for programming.  We have two great upcoming programs to put on your calendar (and bring someone from your staff!):  the Toolbox program on May 30th is a great look into the details of the myriad of programs we all utilize; in November, we are going to ask each of you to put yourselves in the shoes of your client—we will be offering manufacturing-type training, including lean, Six Sigma and corporate innovation training.  Let’s learn what our clients are learning.

Economic development is highly rewarding work.  We can drive through our communities and see the impact we make.  Economic development is a natural for anyone seeking significance in their career.  This list above is just a start.  In the comments below, add your own best practice to the list.  What are you doing within your organization to attract and retain the best in the economic development profession?

Authored by Randy Thelen, President, Lakeshore Advantage Corporation

Thelen serves as a Treasurer on the Michigan Economic Developers Association Board of Directors.