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College Students Explore the Economics Profession

Photo of Ebonya Washington

Career opportunities in the field of economics are vast, and more than 100 college students learned about these options during the recent 2023 Diverse Economics Conference.

Held on Oct. 13 at the Richmond Fed, and co-hosted by the Bank, the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University, the fifth annual conference gave students from both of these universities, Virginia State University, Georgetown University, Howard University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Florida and more than 20 other colleges exposure to leaders in the profession.

University of Richmond President Kevin F. Hallock, a labor economist and the author of 11 books, provided opening remarks. He shared how his undergrad research on the demographics of the labor market and the wage gap is still influencing his work in the field.

“I didn’t imagine that 30 years later, this would still be a problem,” Hallock told students, noting that it is precisely because issues like this impact people’s daily lives that economics is important.

“If you go home for Thanksgiving or any family celebration and you (happen to) study economics, people may ask for your advice on how to do their taxes, whether the stock market will go up or down or how to predict interest rates,” Hallock said. “Some brilliant economists actually study these things, including many right here at the Federal Reserve. However, economists are valuable to society in other ways, in almost every sector and in almost every industry.  Whether you want to help students succeed or children to read or reduce poverty or crime, or solve health issues, you can consider each of these problems through an economic lens, and you can use economic analysis to solve them.”

Hallock’s message teed up keynote speaker Ebonya Washington, the Laurans A. and Arlene Mendelson professor of economics and professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University. She echoed his stance about the impact an economics career can have and how it is a course of study that trains one to think critically.

“It’s a very versatile degree – you can do many things with it,” Washington said, while citing law, medicine and international relations as some of the professions in which economics majors succeed. “It’s really good training on how to think, and how to think carries you over from profession to profession.”

Washington acknowledged the need for more women and people of color in the profession and shared some of the opportunities students should seek out, such as the variety of research and study programs available for economics majors.

She provided a list of organizations that offer support to economics majors, with a particular focus on women and people of color. They include the American Society of Hispanic Economists, the American Economic Association, which hosts a summer program on Howard University’s campus, and the National Economic Association.

“We want to be able to make policy that reflects everyone’s behavior and policy that is for the good of all of the different populations we have in the U.S., and we’re missing out on the experiences and viewpoints of so many people in economics,” Washington said. “We, the economics profession, need you more than you need us.”

The afternoon session included a panel discussion moderated by Kartik Athreya, the Bank’s executive vice president and director of Research, and featured:

  • John O'Trakoun, senior policy economist, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond
  • Melissa Spencer, assistant professor of economics, University of Richmond
  • Helena Cárdenas, environmental economist, The Nature Conservancy
Photo of students from 2023 DivEc

Afterward, students took part in an opportunity to meet early career economists in a variety of professions, including participants in the Richmond Fed’s Research Associate and Discover Analyst programs. Both Hallock and Washington highlighted the importance of students building their professional network.

Sarah Gunn, Richmond Fed director of Economic Education, said she was thrilled with the enthusiasm and engagement of the students who attended.

“Their interest in contributing to the field of economics is evident,” Gunn said. “The Richmond Fed and our partners hope that by exposing them to new paths to consider, the students will be able to find their place within economics. Expanding the breadth of economics subject matter, along with the people doing the work, is critically important.”

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