What does an economist do? The rising role of economists in the public and private sectors

I recently had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion organized by the Washington Council for Economic and Financial Education (WACEFE). WACEFE was formed in 1978 to expand and improve the quality of economic and financial education. The panel’s purpose was to answer the question: What does an economist do in a private or public sector job, and how is the economist’s role likely to evolve in the coming years?

The panelists included myself and Darelene Wilczynski, Vice President at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, Skylar Olsen, Chief Economist at Zillow, and Charlie Manzanares, Senior Manager and Economist at Amazon.

The topic of discussion was “the rising role of economists on policies in the public and private sectors.” The panel participants gave an overview of their backgrounds, what led them to pursue a career in economics, and the pros and cons of getting a Ph.D. in the subject. Drawing on our experience from diverse backgrounds, we discussed how economics is increasingly becoming more critical in shaping decision-making in government, business, and other organizations. This increasing influence in shaping policies affecting both the public and private sectors presents economic challenges and opportunities for economists.

what does an economist do in the private sector - illustration
Economics trend

What does an economist do in tech?

The paper Economists (and Economics) in Tech Companies by Susan Athey and Michael Luca which describes the rising demand for economists in tech and is an excellent reference for understanding why the economist skillset is so valuable in the private sector. The proof of this lies in the hundreds of economists hired in recent years by companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Spotify.

Economists in tech tackle various challenges, including platform design, strategic planning, pricing models, policy analysis, forecasting, and causal inference problems. The latter includes both observational causal inference and experiment design. Problems in tech are often ambiguous, and what economists are particularly good at doing is asking the right questions. The economic intuition often allows to ask questions answering of which has a high business impact. The economist technical toolset has in recent years been integrate with many ML methods to make it suitable for big data settings.

Thus, economists have an impact on decision-making at high levels of the business by providing data-driven insights and economic reasoning.

You can watch a recording of the panel session here.

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