As an economist I’m often faced with many misconceptions about the profession and the scope of work that economists do. Everyone expects all economists to be following GDP, inflation, monetary policy and fiscal policy. We’re supposed to be experts on national debt and trade policies. And, we’re supposed to be very critical of policymakers, unless of course we are the policymakers. Notice that I haven’t mentioned anything to do with the corporate world. It’s as if everyone simply ignores the fact that all economists – and all social scientists for that matter – must study both macroeconomics and microeconomics. Somehow in the Caribbean we’ve reached a point where economists have been pigeonholed into only one subsection of the vast field that is economics.
Do we do that to accountants? I don’t think so. We don’t think twice about the large accounting firms publishing fiscal budget reviews, even though that really is a job for economists. They also offer management consultancy, even though we have thousands of persons that are specifically trained in that area. They even branch into law. There’s nothing wrong with what they’re doing. In fact, I applaud them. As a profession, accountants have realised that they have transferable skills and they are broadening their scope. Good for them.
So why are economists expected to stick to macroeconomics and development policy? Why are our only career opportunities either in some form of macroeconomic or development policy or academia? I believe that there are a number of reasons for the narrow scope of our field.
The independent economies of the Caribbean are young. At our birth in the 1960s we needed macroeconomists more than any other kind. We were now starting central banks and running our own governments and we needed economists versed in these areas. As students, most of the Caribbean economists of note are macroeconomists, so naturally we start to believe that to make it in this profession, you should focus on macroeconomics. Fast forward 50 years and I think we’re still stuck here. The current environment reinforces this focus because the Caribbean economies are struggling and the onus is on macroeconomists to solve the problems. But there are only so many positions in macroeconomics and not all economists are passionate about this area of economics.
Another challenge is that other professions do not understand economics enough to recognise how someone trained in the field could add value to a private company. It’s easy to recognise when you need an accountant or a lawyer. Those fields have rules that only accountants or lawyers can navigate. But most people can read a central bank press release so they believe that they understand the implications for their companies or the country at large. Whether they do or they don’t is irrelevant. It’s their belief that they do that limits the opportunities for economists.
Most social scientists have been exposed to Introduction to Microeconomics/Macroeconomics but outside of social science, we do not expose our students to the formal study of economics. As these non-economists start companies or rise in companies, their lack of exposure and understanding hinders their ability to recognise when they need an economist for strategic purposes. Game theory, war games and competition policy are not introduced in first-year introductory courses. Yet, they play a pivotal role in guiding strategic decisions in corporations. In fact, in large companies all over the world, they anchor strategic decision-making. Economists in these companies may be called Strategy Directors or Division Managers, or they may sit on the legal, marketing or finance teams. What they bring to the table is their unique way of looking at choice.
And what about statistics and business analytics? Is there any other field in Caribbean social science more suited to researching, interpreting and analysing vast volumes of quantitative and qualitative data of any kind than economics? Yet we ask our creative teams to analyse market trends. We ask our accountants to forecast revenue. We ask our lawyers to fight our battles on competition policy. And we ask all of these people to do all this work without the support of someone trained in these areas, and we crucify them when they get it wrong.
I believe it is time to re-educate our people on the value of economics and it is beyond time we already in the field push the boundaries that have enclosed our profession.