Encouraging Economists: A Review of SUE's 2016 Industry Night Gala

If you were one of the many students who made it out to the fantastic gala, here is a reminder of the wonderful night you experienced. If you were unable to come to SUE’s biggest annual event, here is a breakdown of what you missed:

On Wednesday, February 3rd 2016, while most students were busy cramming for midterms, a group of well-dressed top Economics students congregated in eagerness at the Silver Springs Golf and Country Club for the Society of Undergraduates in Economics Annual Industry Night Gala. Everyone was filled with anticipation for the opportunities to meet active economists, network with potential employers, and learn more about how to succeed as Economics students. Students greeted each other warmly, with many complimenting each other on their on point business formal attire. It felt comforting and exciting to see so many friendly faces who make up the Economics family at U of C all in one room.

After initial mixing and mingling, everyone found their way to their seats to enjoy the delicious gourmet meal provided. Each table hosted a different Economist with a unique specialty and perspective on Economics. Whether it was the agricultural, environmental, graduate studies, investment, or one of the many other themed tables, students enjoyed the relaxed conversation with the professionals over dinner. Students seized the opportunity to ask the economists about their transitions from university to career, their advice for current students, and their thoughts on current economic issues.

As dinner came to a close, emcee for the night, main planner of Industry Night, and Executive VP for SUE, Pat Rosser gave encouragement and advice to students for making the most of the evening as well as thanking everyone for coming. He then called on Dr. Ron Kneebone of the Public Policy school to speak to the group.

Dr. Ron Kneebone’s Presentation

Dr. Ron Kneebone, a professor at the School of Public Policy, gave his presentation aptly named I didn’t know Economists did that sort of thing. Dr. Kneebone opened with pointing out that there are two types of economists- “Scientists” and “Engineers”. “Scientists” are those economists who use difficult mathematics and analytics such as econometrics to come up with theoretical solutions to complex problems. “Engineers” are the ones who take the calculations made by “Scientists” and apply it to the real world through business and policy. He highlighted that both types are equally important and that neither can exist without the other.

You become a “Scientist” through education at places like the Master’s program at U of C while you become an “Engineer” through education at places like the School of Public Policy Master’s program. This encouraged students to choose which type of economist they should be, not because one is more important than the other, but because both rely on the other type in order to make Economics relevant and useful as well as logically sound. It was a freeing discussion that made many students who feel guilty or less important for choosing “Engineer” type programs justified in their decisions to focus on what they do best rather than strive for the more difficult.

Dr. Kneebone then went onto speak on how no policy solution is perfect at solving an economic problem, whether approached through “Science” or “Engineering”. He quoted Abraham Lincoln who said “There are few things wholly evil, or wholly good. Almost every thing, especially of governmental policy, is an inseparable compound of the two; so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded.” It is our responsibility to find the optimal balance of good and bad when it comes to solving real world economic problems.

This related to the remainder of Kneebone’s speech during which he shared his extensive research into the causes and patterns of homelessness in Alberta and Canada, with a particular focus on Calgary. Dr. Kneebone shared the trials and challenges he faced trying to answer questions about homelessness policies. He met many obstacles, one of the biggest being that the only data available on homelessness numbers was in thousands of pdf documents of nightly shelter counts. This meant the first job was to convert said pdfs to usable excel files. (Of course, knowing some poor intern was stuck with that tedious job, there was a great pitying groaning from the crowd of students). Kneebone went onto share his discoveries such as that the closing down of cheap, long-term hotels in order to “clean up” Calgary was a key cause of increased homelessness. Other interesting discoveries included that Calgary has twice the homeless population than Edmonton, yet both had received equal funding for years before he made this discovery.

Overall, Dr. Kneebone’s presentation opened students’ eyes to the world of hands-on research. He encouraged students to contribute to economics through their individual strengths and made it clear that you can be an impactful economist without necessarily being an econometrician or mathematician. His passion for policy solutions to social issues was laced throughout his entire presentation, and he appropriately closed with a reminder to all that the School of Public Policy is always looking for “Engineer” applicants.

Todd Hirsch’s Presentation

Following Dr. Kneebone was Chief Economist for ATB Financial and a U of C Master’s graduate, Todd Hirsch. Hirsch took a more relaxed approach to his presentation, really opening up to students about his own journey from undergrad to his current position while discussing economic issues in the process.

Hirsch shared the challenges he faced out of school trying to find employment. It was a struggle to find the type of work he wanted and he remained stuck in the service industry far longer than he had wanted to. He shared with the captivated audience the random opportunities and sheer luck that played such a large role in his career journey such as stumbling into a job with the Bank of Canada with a bunch of “Scientists” that he felt entirely unqualified for. He repeated that there is more than enough room for failure in every success story. With the constant pressure students feel to immediately gain ideal employment straight out of an undergraduate degree, Todd Hirsch provided encouragement by proving that immediate success is not necessary in order to succeed as an Economist.

He went onto address the current struggles of the Albertan Economy, explaining that the primary goal of his job is to discuss the economy throughout Alberta on behalf of ATB Financial. He explained how Alberta has always been innovative and has been a ‘first responder’ when it comes to fixing the economy. Hirsch mentioned that when people say “we should diversify our economy” it is important for someone to step up and be the “we”. He proposed that Alberta could become the next leader in developing energy through new technologies like geothermal deep earth energy. Though he clarified that he is no scientific expert, Hirsch said what’s important is that Alberta should lead in developing these new technologies that others dismiss as impossible, just like when others said the oil sands were impossible to refine. economists need to be able to think creatively and be passionate enough to look for solutions to seemingly unanswerable problems.

Perhaps the greatest take away from Hirsch’s speech was that developing your skills as a well-rounded person will do you more good in the long run that trying to specialize and end up in a specific job straight out of school. One of the greatest parts of having an Economics degree is the fact that it is a liberal arts degree. We are trained in a variety of subjects with a variety of views on the world. Most importantly, we are trained in critical thinking and learning. Todd Hirsch warned students of over-specialization and that, though that particular job may be promising now, ten years from now it may not. He even went so far as to encourage working service industry jobs as basic as serving slurpees at a 7/11 because of the intense preparation it gives for developing people skills, thinking on your feet, and communicating. As economists, our skills are transferrable, but only if we ensure we round out our education with personal development in areas such as writing, presenting, and critical thinking.

Both Hirsch’s and Kneebone’s words struck a chord with students. As the group stood for a dessert break, conversations could be heard throughout the room discussing the interesting points raised with clusters of students questioning Dr. Kneebone and Todd Hirsch further on their presentations.

Message from Will Bui, President of SUE

Will encouraged students to recognize what a great opportunity being involved in SUE is and that, despite how it may appear, is just a group of dedicated students contributing to a common goal of making the economics department a better place. He mentioned upcoming elections and that it was the ideal time for students to begin considering if they would like to be a part of leading SUE.

Round Tables

After some refreshing desserts and stimulating conversation, everyone once again returned to their seats for the round table time. This was a set up designed to make networking easier and more effective for everyone. As some put it, it was “networking with training wheels”. All eight tables would take turns with each professional guest for fifteen minutes at a time. Then when time was up the professionals all moved to the next table. This was designed to ensure that every student had a chance to hear from every guest. Each table also held a SUE executive to drive conversation and guide the questions.

Here are some of the points learned from each guest at my table, though there is nowhere near enough room to put every piece of wisdom given by the generously open economists:

Todd Hirsch (Chief Economist for ATB Financial):

  • Include something odd on your resume that makes you personal. For him, it’s over ten years of experience singing in a recreational choir.

  • He shared a story about an interview where he asked what the last book they had read was. They responded with “I only read economics books, but can’t really tell you the last one I read”. He said the interview was over then and there.

  • Make sure you read lots and write even more. They do not teach you adequate written and presentations skills.

Dr. Ron Kneebone (Professor at the School of Public Policy Master’s Program, Experience Researcher):

  • When it comes to choosing research and a field of study, do what you love.

  • LEARN TO WRITE! Many students graduate without the adequate paper writing skills.

  • Get good grades and do not take extra time to get your degree. Finishing well and on time is the best way to communicate to your employer that you’re smart, capable, and hard working.

  • Keep passionate for what you’re doing and do not get caught up in trying to be ‘successful’ and wealthy.

  • It can take a long time to earn people’s trust. Even though you may have the answers, it may take a long time for anyone to listen to you if they every do.

Ed Vojtassak (Environmental Economist with years of consulting experience)

  • Many of you will never be hired as economists, instead you will be hired as decision makers, critical thinkers, and respected analysts under titles like ‘consultant’ or ‘advisor’.

  • Environmental Economics, like every other type of economics, comes down to cost-benefit analysis. People want you to do the problem solving.

  • You will oftentimes not be listened to when you first speak up because economists tend to think very differently and can be considered cold. BUT, eventually you will always be the final person they turn to at the end of a discussion.

Dr. Joanne Roberts (Graduate Program Coordinator for U of C):

  • The biggest difference between a course based master’s degree and a thesis based master’s is the length of time it takes. She recommends that if you want to do your PhD, it will not hurt you to do the shorter, course-based program.

  • See her any time if you are at all interested in the Master’s program or want advice.

  • She cares about students and believes in the importance of communication between department and students.

Rick Pender (CEO of Virtex Farm Foods Inc.)

  • Our table had an interesting conversation about the nature of trading in the agriculture industry.

  • He recommended experiencing the world rather than powering right through school. He looks for life experience when hiring people rather than did they jump through all the right hoops.

  • He chose to pass up scholastics, including offers to attending outstanding schools, in order to gain experience that he has used every day in his work.

  • He in an “Engineer” through and through and has a passion for what he does.

Constantine Zakrasov (Recent U of C Economics Graduate working for BP in commodities trading)

  • School does not actually prepare you for real jobs, 90% of it is learning on the job.

  • It is high-paced, hard work but he loves it.

  • You need to be well-rounded and intuitive in order to be good at the job- you have to be able to learn and think on your own.

Ian Bell (Regional Manager for Fidelity Investments)

  • His job is to sell portfolios to people who work with clients- he sells to financial advisors.

  • What he looks for when hiring students- Passion, drive, responsibility, independence, high GPA, and experience.

  • “You can’t teach a good attitude”

  • Writing and presentation skills are so important for success.

  • You need to be able to sell- both your company’s products and yourself in an interview/ to your bosses.

  • The job can be challenging, but in a fun way.

  • The pay is great!

  • Use your time in university to have fun and make mistakes because you don’t have those opportunities once you are in the workforce.

Shamus Hardie (Recent U of C graduate, past PASS leader and Co-op Program member, currently work for Alberta Energy Regulator):

  • Take advantage of what’s available regarding resources in school.

  • Work on your skills not taught in the classroom- people, writing, presentation, and involvement skills.

  • Enjoy what you do, but do something that you’re good at.

Door Prizes and Farewell

With the end of round tables finishing at 10:00, there was just enough time to announce the winners of the door prizes- various Tim Horton’s gift cards and a copy of Todd Hirsch’s book “The Boiling Frog Dilemma”. With a few more shared drinks, final shaking of hands, and last minute networking, students began filing onto the bus back to campus or onto the limo to go to the after party.

All in all the evening was a great success, with most students feeling encouraged and justified in their choice to be economists. Many of the professionals would go on to say what a unique experience it was for them reflect back on their journey from students to economists and ponder the great yet difficult questions students were asking. What a fantastic evening to experience the closeness of the undergraduate community in the U of C Economics Department.

A great big thank you to the following: to the Silver Springs Golf and Country Club for hosting us and serving us to an unbelievable standard, to Fidelity Investments for sponsoring our club this year, to the professionals who gave up a week night to generously answer student’s questions and share their knowledge, to all you students who represented our school so well by being thoughtful, respectful, and professional. And finally thank you to the SUE executive team who put in so many hours planning such an awesome event! We look forward to seeing you all again soon.

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