Thursday, October 22, 2015

Ag Jobs A to Z: Economist

Photo Credit: Iowa State University
As an Agricultural Business major, I've been lucky to meet several economists in my four years at Iowa State. I remember the first time I met T.J. Rakitan as he talked me through my Econ 101 homework in the Econ Help Room. These days I run into T.J. at department events and schedule planning meetings. He always has a good long boarding story or comment that makes me laugh when our paths cross in Heady Hall.

T.J. is a PhD Econ student, but also helps underclassmen as an adviser and is a great subject resource. Thanks for sharing his experiences and advice, T.J.!

1. Where did you go to school?
I did my undergraduate work in Economics and Foreign Languages/International Affairs at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA.  I also earned an M.S. in Agricultural and Resource Economics from the University of California, Davis, and I am completing my PhD studies in Economics at Iowa State.

2. What inspired you to pursue a job in Ag Economics?
I began my academic career studying environmental and resource economics, and many of the research questions that interest me have broad application and relevance to agriculture.  
For example, I’m interested in how the energy industry interacts with agriculture when wind turbines or oil wells are constructed on farms.  Also, I’m interested in the public policies aimed at preventing environmental degradation and role played by agriculture in helping preserve environmental value while helping feed the world.  

3. How long have you been working in Ag Economics?
Since 2008, when I began my M.S. studies at UC Davis.  

4. What skills are necessary for a career in Ag Economics?
To borrow from the late, great John Maynard Keynes, “the master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts […] he must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher—in some degree.”  

An economist must be comfortable considering the logic of abstract concepts while applying them to the “real world,” and agriculture is about as real as it gets!  It’s often handy to have a background emphasizing mathematical skill, but the goal of applied economics is the considered understanding of how people make decisions and how this determines societal well-being.  Both analytical and communication skills are necessary—the challenge of the agricultural economist is to translate informed observation and scientific study of incentives into recommendations for policy and practice.  

5. How does your job fit into the agricultural industry? (Who do you work with? Who do you help? Who helps you?) 
Agricultural economists compile, analyze and interpret data to help ag practitioners and policymakers make better decisions.  In my own experience, I work with public officials, state data collectors and industry participants to analyze policies such as the placement of wind energy installations.  Additionally, many economists work as educators, teaching classes at universities to help students understand how resources are allocated and how individual behaviors add up to market-level effects.

My research is aimed helping evaluate the costs, benefits and effectiveness of policies and regulations, which contributes to the information available to the general public.  Other economists, however, work more directly with agricultural groups to analyze the markets for Iowa ag production and consult on the economic value of ag inputs.  For example, some ISU Econ Dept. faculty work with the ISU Extension, working with farmers, cooperatives and agribusiness firms to disseminate information about market-level trends in prices, quantities and expected returns on investment.  The ISU Econ Department also publishes the Ag Decision Maker tool to help farmers make informed decisions about how to allocate resources within their farms.  

6. What career/internship opportunities are there with Ag Economics?
Career-wise, most economists seek jobs in private industry (commodities trading firms, ag consulting firms) or in the public sector (U.S. Department of Ag, colleges and universities, extension services).  At the undergraduate level, the typical economist may begin his or her career as an analyst who specializes in a single commodity or group of businesses, while Masters and PhD graduates are often employed in broader research capacities.  
The skills emphasized by training in economics are often quite general—that is, the economist must have a basic understanding of how optimal decisions are arrived at, and must then tailor this understanding to help explain the happenings in a specific industry.  Internships tend to focus on precisely this: students will know how to analyze things, but may not yet know the ins and outs of their industry of choice.  

7. Is there anything else you would like a student audience to know?
I should emphasize that subject knowledge is important!  Economics provides an excellent set of tools for analyzing the decisions by which scarce resources are allocated, but knowing something about which resources are actually being allocated makes a huge difference.  It’s no accident that many ag economists have roots in rural agrarian communities.  Those of us that didn’t start with this background (like me) have had to learn it along the way! 

Thanks again to T.J. for sharing his perspective as an economist. Thanks for reading!

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