Book: The Economist - 2016-01-09

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The market for economists

The right match

America’s biggest economic conference doubles as a jobs fair

| SAN FRANCISCO |

THE American Economic Association’s annual conference, held each January, is ostensibly a gigantic teach-in, with lots of seminars featuring famous economists. But the three-day event, held this year in San Francisco with 13,000 attending, is also a big jobs fair. More than 500 employers—both universities and companies—were tied up in hotel rooms holding marathon interview sessions with freshly minted PhDs. The ballroom of the Marriott was set aside for a hundred more.

It is a gruelling three days for candidates: one exhausted PhD likened it to speed-dating. It is also arduous for recruiters. Towards the end of the first day Alan Green and Christopher de Bodisco of Stetson University, a small private college in Florida, review the candidates they have seen so far. They are looking for someone with an interest in health and development. They plan to grill a dozen candidates each day before inviting the most promising ones to visit its campus and meet the rest of the faculty.

The grandest universities use suites for comfort but also as a display of prestige. Plausible candidates are given a code to exchange for the hotel-room number in order to deter gatecrashers. The leading institutions speak to the best candidates; the rest to anyone they think they can get. “There’s no point in talking to someone who’s going to end up at Harvard,” says a professor at a British university.

Yet the hierarchy can be disrupted. A star European PhD from a leading American school may have a homesick spouse or an ailing parent. Events may conspire in your favour. When the AEA conference was last held in San Francisco, in 2009, fiscal turmoil left American state universities cash-strapped. Universities in Europe took full advantage. They could hire—and perhaps keep—someone who would otherwise have gone to Iowa or Michigan State, says the professor.

The financial crisis created shortages as well as opportunities. The IMF, which a year previously had planned to lay off staff because of the paucity of crises, swept up many of the PhDs in macroeconomics in 2009. Recruiters say the shortage of macro and finance experts has lingered: central banks and government agencies are keen hirers of these types.

There are other bidders for talent. More than a dozen of the Marriott’s tables were reserved for Chinese universities, which increasingly follow an American-style economics curriculum and will pay the going global rate. Tech firms want the best number-crunchers for their big-data projects, and PhD economists have the right skills. Liberal-arts colleges like Stetson want faculty who can teach and do research across disciplines. They believe economics is the best grounding.

The market for economists appears to be tightening as a result. Economics is one of two departments at Stetson (the other is engineering) in which hiring has become noticeably dearer, its recruiters say. University deans may gripe, but that is good news for the tired-looking PhDs trudging the corridors of San Francisco’s big hotels.


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