How to Help Young Professionals Transition to a New Role in Economic Development

By Adam J. Henry, Prince William County, Va., Department of Economic Development

This is the second in a series of articles from IEDC’s Young Professionals Advisory Committee offering insights to help young economic developers grow in their careers.

After working in economic development at the state level in Florida for nearly four years, I was ready to make a leap up the east coast to further my career. When I accepted a job at Prince William County, Va., I was curious about the differences between working in economic development at the state level versus the local level and how my skills would be utilized in my new role. How different would this new chapter in my career be?

Drawing from this experience, here are five tips – three for young professionals and two for their experienced mentors – to help young economic developers transition to a new position.

1. Young ED professionals: Learn all about your new organization and the public you’re serving.

While it may seem obvious, learning about the history of your organization–its past projects and its relationships with state and local partners–before you start will give you valuable perspective and ease your learning curve. Questions you should be able to answer include: What is the community’s strategic economic development plan? What are the EDO’s targeted sectors? What recent projects has the EDO initiated? And what are businesses and economic development partners saying about the EDO?

Just as important is learning about the community your organization serves as you set out to sell it to businesses and consultants. Understanding the geography, infrastructure, workforce, demographics, politics, public opinion, and other details are important to knowing your product well. Using resources from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census Bureau, local and regional news sources, economic development websites, and other partners will help you better understand your new community.

Social media is one of the best ways to gain a better understanding of your new environment and is a great networking tool when coming into a new position. Whether through Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, connect with people and groups in the area and engage in conversations to better understand your new organization and community.

2. Seasoned ED professionals: Ensure new hires understand organizational definitions and core economic development assumptions.

Although the economic development community is small and many terms, concepts, and processes are universally known, they can be understood very differently from level to level and region to region. Whether it’s the definition of an active or closed project, the process for approving incentives, or the relationships with state and local partners, these basic concepts can be very different from place to place. Defining and explaining them will be key to the success of your new hire.

Coming into my new position, I was provided an on-boarding manual that explained the county’s strategic economic development plan, the state and local partners the organization regularly works with, the county government structure, and how to use the department’s database for projects and leads. These helped me understand the process of economic development in the county and how it differs from processes at my previous position. A manual that captures the nuances of your organization’s work will help all new employees as they transition and even allow seasoned employees a refresher on procedures and terms.

3. Young ED professionals: Keep an open mind about different views towards economic development.

Changing both the level of government and state I worked in quickly showed me just how different people’s views and approaches toward economic development can be. It’s important to recognize and respect these differences, but at the same time, don’t be afraid to offer your own perspective and ideas based on your experience. I engaged my new colleagues in constructive dialogue and discussed our approaches used in Florida toward proposal development, familiarization tours, database management, and trade shows and conferences. Although some suggestions may be too challenging to implement at your new organization, elements of those ideas may evolve into a usable strategy.

Remember, as a new employee, you have the unique ability to see the organization and community from an outside-in perspective. This will be a valuable asset when thinking of new ways to create jobs and investment in your community.

4. Seasoned ED professionals: Provide avenues for young professionals to build their networks.

For many young professionals, opportunities to build a professional network and socialize with partners and prospects are some of the most important investments an employer can make in a new hire. Whether by investing in membership to an industry group or including them in networking receptions and meetings with partners, helping young professionals get out and meet with the people they will work with on a daily basis is key to their professional development.

After coming to my new position, my department encouraged me to get involved with IEDC, NAIOP Northern Virginia, the state economic development association, and local industry organizations so I could learn about our growing logistics sector. This allowed me to quickly establish a network and get involved with committees and projects to reinforce our organization as a valued regional stakeholder.

5. Finally, young ED professionals: Take every available opportunity to learn and grow.

Whether it’s a 10-minute meeting with a state agency, an evening reception with county officials, or a luncheon with regional business partners, taking advantage of seemingly small opportunities will not only help the organization but also allow you to expand your experience beyond the office.

One of my best learning experiences came from attending a zoning and planning meeting, which shed light on a range of issues relevant to how our department works with prospects. Issues related to building permits and fire inspections were new to me, and this perspective proved valuable while transitioning into my new role. These opportunities are some of the best ways to learn the finer details about your community and gain additional tools to ensure success. Be vocal, and get involved in additional projects to expand opportunities for yourself and your organization.

***

Someone once told me that economic development is a team sport, and working together in harmony is a key ingredient for success. Part of that harmony includes taking new employees in with open arms and making sure their transition is as quick and seamless as possible. This will ensure the economic development machine stays well-oiled for continued success and prosperity.

Adam Henry is a business development manager at Prince William County Department of Economic Development and is a member of the IEDC Young Professionals Advisory Committee.

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