Today’s episode of What Do You Actually Do!? will be focusing on management of economic growth. We interviewed Alex Dochery, who works as the manager of the economic growth team at the City of York Council.
Alex currently manages the Economic Growth team at City of York Council, which focuses on making sure that the city continues to be a fantastic place to live and to do business. Alex also works for the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding Enterprise Partnership supporting work on their Local Industrial Strategy.
For more info about working in local government:
Economic Development role description:
Hello, and welcome to this episode of what do you actually do? My name is Kate Morris, and I’ll be your host today. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about economic development within the local government sector. Today we’re joined by Alex Dochery, who works as an economic growth manager at the City of York Council. So Alex, what do you actually do?
So broadly speaking, I manage a team responsible for making sure that York is a great place to work, but also live. And that involves working with a wide range of partners, and also colleagues and the council to make sure we maximize what we get from our economic development and regeneration projects to benefit all cities, residents and businesses.
So what does that actually involve, you going out and meeting different businesses? Are you sort of working on strategies to encourage people to come to the area? How does it work on a day to day basis?
All of those things, I think the role is quite varied. So part of it is actually building the city strategy and asking how do we want to boost economic growth in York? Part of it is actually focusing on investment to make sure we get the right kind of businesses, that will create the jobs for young people and residents that work and live in York. Other aspects of it is making sure that our regeneration projects maximize our potential, even from a wealth creation point of view, but also from a physical asset point of view as well. So it accomplices a wide range of areas. The key thing for me is that no days the same, it’s a very varied role, which I enjoy.
What was your starting point? Because you did a history degree and master’s, from my research on you. And how did that then lead into sort of more of an interest in economics and working in local government? What was your journey?
So I think I always had an interest in economics. So part of my degree involved quite a lot of economic history, which I really enjoyed. When it came to finishing my academic studies, I was looking around for what to do next. I looked at various graduate schemes, that involved the civil service, local government, also more standard kind of management and business related schemes. But I didn’t know that I kind of felt like I wanted to do one that made a difference to people. So that pushed me down the local government route. So I saw the NGDP graduate scheme, and it was the one that I came across. But it’s actually sounded really interesting. So basically, that scheme is you are put in a local authority over two years, and you get to experience different placements in different areas. So I went through the recruitment process for that, I did all the tests, the assessment centres and the final interview. I ended up at Selby District Council, just south of York. And then I think, after several placements, it was also a time where the council was looking to build an economic development team. And that’s really important nowadays with local councils, because obviously, with austerity, councils are trying to do more with less and obviously, bringing businesses into the area, generating business rates, which the council keep a portion of that can start to pay for local services. And also, we invest in an area. So we were building a new team, I was part of that. And that’s how I got myself into economic development. And now I find myself in York, with York’s abundance of assets. And I’m very excited about being here and looking to drive our agenda forward as well as the city.
That’s really interesting that it sounds like a bit of luck, that actually, Selby happened to be wanting to develop their economic side of their strategy. But also, it wasn’t necessarily that much pure luck, because you already had that interest. And I imagine you probably saw your opportunities to get involved and kind of, to that extent you’re really interested in it. And so, looking back now, do you feel you’re going in the right direction? Have you got your plans for what you want to do beyond this particular role?
Yeah, so I mean, obviously, I’ve got an interest in economic development, it was really great. Before I took the opportunity to come York, I was kind of reassessing my opportunities, because I didn’t feel that I tried, I almost achieved what I set out to achieve. So we’re a brand new team, lots of big re- generational points on the way down there as well. So I was looking for the next step. And I was considering actually, maybe going into the private sector. There’s lots of economic development consultancies that at the moment, are doing lots of work with local pharmacies and businesses. But the opportunity came up in York which is also a very exciting place. And it’s kind of where I wanted to go next. And that opportunity kind of spoke to me. So I’m very excited about what we’re doing here in York. So I don’t have any plans beyond that for now. But I will say that there are some big projects coming forward, such as York Central, so obviously 2500 new homes and also an abundance of commercial space, we’ve got HS2 happening, Northern Power rail is a really exciting project for York. I’m quite keen to make sure that we maximize them.
So how do you get involved in those kind of projects? And what’s your role that you play within them?
So, the key role for that is actually, almost an influencing role, because obviously you’ve got certain organisations which you are building a network with, and you are making the case that York should be a key part of that network. You are building an economic case, convincing people why York should be a stop on that network, why it will benefit the nation as a whole, what York has to offer to the North’s economy, what York has to offer to the whole country. It is important that we put forward the case. We have seen colleagues in Bradford, who have shouted loudly to make sure they have a station on the Northern Powerhouse rail network, with governments listening to them. We need to make sure we shout about York, and what York has to offer as well, to make sure that we get what we need for the benefit of the city.
Is having to do a lot of research and provide evidence of the impact that having that link, or not having that link would create as well as actually influencing peoples’ thinking through building relationships? What do you mean by the shouting?
So, it is all those things. It is lobbying government departments, providing companies with information they need to make sure that the business can decide whether to invest in York. It involves working with sub-regional colleagues as well, if they are pulling some information together for why, you know, sub regionally we have the Leeds City region, kind of an enterprise partnership that involves York as well as Leeds, Harrogate and all the areas nearby, collectively coming together with one voice to promote the area. Our role is to make sure the York offer within that is very strong as well. It is all those things and more.
It sounds, as you indicated at the start, that your role really is hugely varied, you are working across so many different teams, you are involved in so many different elements of what is happening at a local and in some ways a national level. What kinds of skills or personal qualities do you think are important in your role and that students should be thinking of developing if they want to work in this sector?
I think there is quite a wide range of skills that you need to have, you know, for a career in local government more broadly, but also in economic development, having strong analytical skills will stand you in really good stead. That is crucial when you are gathering the evidence and making the case for why we should be backing a particular investment or bringing a particular investment to the area. Good communication skills are really important as well. You are often influencing politicians, senior management, being able to make sure you get your point across effectively and efficiently is really important. As well as that, relationship building is really important. You work with a wide range of partners and colleagues and being able to get along with them, but also influence them in a certain way is really important. Beyond that, good organisation is important as you are often involved in a wide range of projects, you need to stick to time, manage your workload effectively, especially given the fast-paced nature of the way that we work, that is important too. Often, you find yourself through no fault of your own, working to tight deadlines, so being able to manage that effectively and not crumble under pressure is really important too.
It sounds like in a way, history sets you up really well for that, with both the breadth of subject area that it covers, but also the self-directed study side of it. I guess that relates to a lot of humanities subjects actually. Do you feel glad you have come from that background, that you had a bit of training in that?
Yes, I absolutely agree. The difficulty in doing a humanity subject is that you don’t have a set career path after you finish, but the flip side of that is that you can go into quite a wide range of careers, and I guess for any student who did a humanities degree or is doing one at the moment, when you go to apply for jobs think about how your studies relate to what you are applying for, how can you apply your learning or what you have done in your degree to that set career that you are going for, because I think a humanities graduate does have a lot of skills that they can bring to the table, and employers do value that as well, so just make sure you evidence that and show how you can apply your knowledge. That applies to most degrees and it is all about evidencing how you can apply your knowledge.
You mentioned quite a few really exciting projects which are coming to York, and that will give you more scope in your role to get involved. Any other key issues? I mean Brexit is an obvious one, but anything else that students should be anticipating if they want to work in this sector in the future?
Yes, there is a few. I mean the first thing is that we are all operating under the environment of austerity at the moment, so obviously councils are trying to do more with less and they have to find funding to pay for important services, such as education, adult social care, children’s social care. So obviously there are budgetary pressures there. I think the key for any student looking to get into the public sector is to try and be creative. We are always trying to think of ways of doing more with less. The opportunities are there for people to be entrepreneurial and creative, so I would encourage anyone looking to get into that area to embrace those skills. I think the other big issue, especially for York, is climate change. There has been a lot of talk nationally about how we are not meeting our targets, we are facing emerging challenges around the environment. For York, the Councillors have declared a climate emergency and the new administration has spoken about how it wants York to be carbon-neutral by 2030, so they are quite short time scales. How we deliver that now is what we are involved in back at the council. That is actually quite exciting as it shapes our future, and for future generations. As an area, that is really exciting and I think young people, more so today, are embracing the climate change agenda and feel very strongly about it, so there will be plenty of opportunities around that as well.
That sounds really nice to be involved in such a positive thing, that will as you say have long lasting implications as well. Any final words of wisdom for people who are wanting to break into this sector? You mentioned the NGDP – have you met any other colleagues who got into the sector in a different way?
Yes, at the end of the day, councils are businesses, so they all advertise their opportunities and jobs and you don’t necessarily have to go through the graduate scheme route. I was quite fortunate because the graduate scheme does provide you with a large number of colleagues across the country who are doing similar things. Also, it gives you a qualification in leadership which is quite useful for your career, but there are several ways to get into the sector. I think the most important thing for me, for any graduate coming out of university is to be resilient. Obviously there are lots of jobs out there, there are lots of graduate schemes, but not going through to the final stage or not getting the job is just part of life unfortunately and just keep trying, putting the effort into it. Keep applying for jobs, tailor your applications to the various opportunities and you will get to where you want to go to. Be resilient, keep looking for opportunities and be prepared to travel to different areas as well. So I studied in Manchester & London and when I finished university I moved back to Manchester, but obviously my two jobs so far have been in Yorkshire, so I have been prepared to travel beyond my immediate area for those opportunities and I think that you will find the right fit for you. Also, it is important to remember that whatever job you do, the chances are you won’t be doing that for the rest of your life. Your career might go in a separate or different direction, so again that is part of life and be prepared to take those opportunities as they come.
I think that is a really useful point, because I see a lot of students who feel & worry that their next step after graduation has got to be the perfect end point, and actually it is a stepping stone, and I think that also your point about being potentially open to move and be flexible geographically. I’m betting Selby wasn’t top of your wishlist of places to live and work – it is perfectly nice but it is not particularly a cosmopolitan, exciting place! That experience has led you to be in York and who knows where that will take you, so it is just saying – this is a good opportunity, ok, the location might not be ideal but it is a short term thing, and then move forward and grow from that point.
Yes, you are absolutely right. I think what drew me to Selby was the scale of opportunity and the ambition from the local authorities to be different and to actually drive forward its growth plans, so that is what won me over. I was still commuting between Manchester and Selby for that job.
How long did that take you?
On the train, it is about an hour and 10 minutes – but for me it was worth it, because that job is where I wanted to be, I saw the opportunities for my career development as well, so for me I had no regrets, and I still keep in contact with my colleagues over there. I am very excited about how they are driving it forward there, with their growth plans, and it is good that I was a part of that.
Yes, that is fantastic. Well thank you so much for talking to us today, it has been really useful. I’m gonna add some relevant links to the episode’s description and a link to the full transcript of today’s show. It has been a pleasure – thank you.
No thank you, thanks for having me.
Thanks for joining us this week on what do you actually do? This episode was hosted by myself Kate Morris and edited and produced by the Careers and Placements team. If you love this podcast, spread the word and subscribe. Are you eager to get more tips? Follow University of York Careers and Placements on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. All useful links are in this episode description. This has been produced at the University of York Careers and Placements. For more information visit york.ac.uk/careers.