What does it mean to be an economist?

Is an economist similar to a data scientist? How is an economist different from a Machine Learning engineer? Or is an economist someone who calculates unemployment and works with tax policy? Economist jobs are found in academia, government, and the private sector.

I would argue that what distinguishes economists is the ability to ask the right questions when analyzing outcomes driven by complex economic systems.

With the rise of technology platforms such as Uber and Airbnb, new markets and ways of acquiring information have emerged. Economists specializing in applied microeconomics, experiments, and industrial organization have come to play an increasingly large role at large tech companies and the number of economist jobs in the private sector has expanded. I recommend this excellent article by Susan Athey and Michael Luca for a detailed discussion of the types of problems that economists deal with in the private sector.

Economist jobs in consulting focus on a wide range of applications, from litigation consulting to building custom predictive models for businesses. Economists help companies navigate market dynamics, and regulatory environments, and assess economic risks.  The latter is particularly relevant in the context of long-range forecasting and making large and irreversible business investments with a long lead time. For example, imagine a company that is deciding whether to build more warehouses to accommodate customer demand over the next three to five years. While it is of course impossible to predict the future, macroeconomic models can help outline reasonable scenarios for future paths of the economy and how those scenarios might impact customer demand.