Being an economic officer – what it's really like
Updated: Feb 15, 2019
No matter their chosen career track, all US diplomats have to complete at least one consular tour at the entry-level (in the first four years). Economic officers often don’t work in a full-time economic position until their second or third tour.
In big missions there are several economic officers so junior diplomats may be in charge of only one portfolio, like the energy sector. In smaller missions, on the other hand, they may have to keep track of many or all relevant economic and commercial issues. An economic officer, who split the economic portfolios with one other officer, told me once that the number of different issues he works on is so large it’s hard to recall all the different things he does on any given day.
A typical first job for an entry-level economic officer consists of following economic trends, reporting to the capital and making contacts with officials at the appropriate levels of government.
They also get to know all the major business leaders that have some connection with their country and meet with the local business society if there is one—American businesses are typically united in an American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham). They answer questions from companies and promote their countries' industries and services.
In some countries, issues are very specific. If you work in a small island nation, for example, you're probably going to work a lot on climate change and water issues, since many islands are about to go under. If you work in a tropical area, rain forest preservation might be an issue you work on a lot. In oil rich countries, energy is going to be a major topic and in fuel-deficient countries it's going to be more about finding alternative energy sources. In underdeveloped economies, you may work on general economic development and support the strengthening of institutions, court systems, etc.
In Washington DC, there are several functional economic bureaus that work on a number of specialized issues (called the “E family”): Economic and Business Affairs (EB), Energy Resources (ENR), and Oceans, Environment and Scientific Affairs (OES). The latter deals with things like Antarctic, water conservation, and space technology. If you work for a functional bureau you focus on a specific issue like that for two or three years, which allows you to gain a lot of subject-matter expertise.
Diplomats serving in Washington DC can also be detailed to the National Security Council or agencies economic offers routinely deal with, like the Department of Commerce, Department of Agriculture, Department of Treasury, Trade Representative, Office of Management and Budget, USAID, and the Department of Defense.
The next step up is to be a mid-level economic officer or the (deputy) economic counselor in an embassy or consulate. At this point, you’ll be the main point of contact for government officials from various ministries, local businesses, and American companies. You’re in charge of managing all monitoring and reporting, delivering démarches to the government, liaising with economic officers from other diplomatic missions and international organizations like the World Bank and the IMF, and arranging meetings for high-level visitors from the capital.
Once you’re at the mid-level of the foreign service, it is also common to serve a tour in Washington DC as a country or regional specialist, advisor or (deputy) office director at the State Department. Or, you can work at an international organization—the UN or the IAEA, for example. I also know an economic officer who did a tour at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague.