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I want to study economics, but what do economists do?

Mick Jagger and Donald TrumpDo you know what Ted Turner, the CEOs of Microsoft and ebay, Donald Trump, Warren Buffett, and presidents Ford, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush have in common with Mick Jagger, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Karina Smirnoff from "Dancing with the Stars"? Yes, they all majored in economics.

Other illustrious econ grads include Walmart founder Sam Walton and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, as well as many heads of state worldwide and numerous stars of the sporting world, stage, and screen. According to The Princeton Review, economics is one of the top ten college majors—and is the most popular major at many prestigious universities such as Harvard, Dartmouth, and Brown. In a recent study from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, economics also ranked as the highest-earning major in the categories of business and social science.

Economic content is now included in state standards at all grade levels in many states, but most students do not take a formal course in the subject until their senior year in high school. Students who become excited about the course and consider continuing their study of economics after high school may lose their enthusiasm when someone asks them the perennial question: What are you going to do with an economics major? Although economics is really a social science, many consider it a business major—and most people know what managers, accountants, and marketers do. But aside from a career in politics or as an entrepreneur, what can a background in economics prepare students for, and where are the jobs? What kinds of skills are most important for students who want to pursue a career in economics?

The American Economic Association categorizes five broad areas that draw most economics majors after graduation: the corporate world, economic consulting, law, government and nonprofit work, and academics and research. In the corporate world, many economics majors find themselves in management, finance or sales positions, or they go on to complete a master's in business administration  with a concentration in economics. A number of consulting firms seek economics majors to analyze data and develop economic models. Economics majors are also consistently among the highest scoring students on the Law School Admission Test, or LSAT. Numerous government and nonprofit agencies hire economists, including the Federal Reserve, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the World Bank. By teaching or conducting research, economics majors can share their knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject with others and make important contributions to the field. Recent issues of the American Economic Association's Job Openings for Economists have included not only academic postings but also positions listed by companies, organizations, and government agencies as diverse as ebay and Yahoo, the U.S. departments of State, Labor, and Treasury, several central banking agencies, large commercial banks, the Census Bureau, and even the American Dental Association.

Students who wish to research career options can find good basic information at the Bureau of Labor Statistics' (BLS) career page for students. Students can click the Social Studies link to look for information on the education requirements, average salaries, and job outlook for economists. More detailed information is available in the BLS's Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), which also includes a teacher's guide. As a classroom activity, students can research and compare various occupations (including economist!) in the OOH using this grid.

The handbook points out that economists need strong quantitative skills and that students may need to pursue advanced degrees to qualify for many jobs in the private sector. Strong computer skills, attention to detail, and an ability to communicate well are also important, as much of the work economists do involves analyzing data and conducting research. These skills are also necessary for a career teaching economics.

According to the BLS, government agencies, particularly federal agencies, employ the majority of economists. The agency projects that economist jobs will grow about 6 percent over the next 10 years. Most of that growth will occur in the private sector.

By learning more about the opportunities that a major in economics can lead to, students who enjoy their economics courses may find themselves, in the words of economics major Lionel Ritchie, "sailing on" to an interesting major and an even more interesting and rewarding career.

By Lesley Mace, economic and financial education specialist, Jacksonville Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta

January 24, 2012