Alumni Profile: Derek Bjonback, Charter Student in Economics
In 1965, when Derek Bjonback was trying to decide where to go for his post-secondary education, he says the lengthy commute to UBC from his hometown of Port Moody was a significant factor in his decision to attend Simon Fraser University, the “instant university,” on Burnaby Mountain. Bjonback, who attended SFU from 1965-70, completed both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Economics and says he was also excited at the opportunities opening up at SFU. “The idea of being able to study with new dynamic faculty from around the world was really exciting to me,” he recalls, “there was a lot of talk about how much of the faculty came from Britain, Berkeley in the US, and how students would have the chance to take classes directly from these researchers.”
Bjonback, now an Associate Professor of Economics at Purdue University North Central, says his interest in economics was not planned. Recalling the process of deciding courses and a major, Bjonback says he went to see an academic counselor, which, in the early days of the university were located in the basement of the W.A.C. Bennett Library. The counselor noted Bjonback’s interest in history and strength in mathematics, and steered him in the direction of Economics at SFU. “he suggested I might do well in Economics, given my interests and strengths.”
“Even now,” Bjonback goes on, ““economic history is something that is central to my teaching; I now teach macroeconomics, regional economics, public finance, and business finance and I take a historical and evolutionary approach to teaching, emphasizing the historical origins of theories and concepts”. Bjonback asays he also uses current policy documents and try to incorporate the experience of other countries in policy development.
Recounting how a number of professors in economics influenced his direction, Bjonback says "Michael Lebowitz started my life-long interest in economic history and I took courses with John “Jock” Munro whose area was also regional economics and transportation. It was remarkable," he remembers. “Dr. Munro actually had us analyze and work with current reports and data like the Royal Commission on Transportation, for example.”
Reflecting on his reasons for doing his Masters in Economics, Bjonback says he was motivated, in part, because SFU’s unique tri-semester system would allow him to finish his MA in one year. Upon completing his MA, Bjonback got a job right away working on a water basin study for the Okanagan. He worked as part of a federal team of researchers, questioning whether or not there was enough water to sustain the economic growth in the interior, and he says he used an input-output model to forecast the amount of water needed. His coursework at SFU had prepared him well for the task, he recalls. One of the extended essays for his MA involved an extensive review of input-output analysis in evaluating regional economic growth. Bjonback notes that despite the revolution in computing technology, the basic structure of input-output analysis is the same and is still extensively used today.
Although Bjonback is now an associate professor, becoming an academic was not always his goal: “My professional life has actually has gone through several phases or tracks,” he says. “From 1971-73, I was involved in the basin study in the Okanagan. I was also with the Canadian Foreign Service (Trade Commissioners) in Iran from 1974 to 1975. After that I actually returned and worked for Environment Canada, in Ottawa doing analysis related to flood control on Lake Champlain.” Bjonback says his path to becoming an academic was someone winding. In the mid-1970s, while working for Environment Canada, he received a grant to do his doctorate at Colorado State University, studying water resources economics and management.
Bjonback defended his dissertation in 1983, then accepted a position as the Chief of Water Planning in Regina, Saskatchewan. In 1993, however, he recalls, everything changed when the federal government’s budget cut many jobs in Environment Canada “the federally-managed water-planning program was completely eliminated and I had to look elsewhere for a whole new career and livelihood.”
Bjonback says he then spent several years working as an economic development professional with Project Future, the economic development agency for St. Joseph County, Indiana, and also did consulting work in the field in northern Indiana and southwestern Michigan. With extensive industry and governmental experience, and having had some teaching experience while in Regina, Bjonback was able to begin a life of research and teaching at Purdue University North Central in 2002—a regional campus of Indiana’s Purdue University.
Bjonback is also the director of Purdue University North Central's Center for Economic Development and Research (CEDaR), whose mandate is to support local and regional economic growth and development of Northwest Indiana and the Midwest. Bjonback and his team of researchers work with local government to provide data and policy analyses and their work has helped support existing industries like steel and manufacturing, while also attracting new business to the region. “One of our region’s main exports is steel but we also contribute to the basic manufacturing of goods like air compressors, so we’ve produced economic briefings and participated in Question and Answer sessions with the local businesses and industry. We’re providing much-needed information and support, while local governments develop policy.” Bjonback says CEDaR also works to track the overall performance of certain industries like steel or health care, for example.
Bjonback’s wide array of academic and professional experiences shows that an education in Economics can truly broaden one’s horizons. “My faculty colleagues come from a variety of backgrounds including academia, business, government and health care," he says. "We bring a variety of perspectives to the classroom. Our broad experience also contributes to our community engagement and research, to enable the region to realize its economic potential."