Facutly Spotlight: Susan Helper, Economics

Facutly Spotlight: Susan Helper, Economics

Posted 11.13.06

Weatherheadlines recently sat down with Susan Helper, Professor of Economics, to talk about her unique blend of operations management and economics, being a recipient of an endowed chair, and her view on how manufacturing can help Cleveland's economy.

Where are you from?
I was born in Omaha, Nebraska but moved to Columbus, Ohio when I was eleven. I went to undergrad at Oberlin College. After I graduated, I worked for two years at the Congressional Budget Office in Washington, DC. I then went to graduate school at Harvard. After receiving my PhD, I taught operations management at Boston University for three years; I came to Weatherhead in 1990.

So you went from operations management to economics?
Yes. My PhD is in economics but I’ve been doing a mix of both as I try to understand what gets done on shop floors and the work that engineers do and how the tools of economics helps us understand that. For example, do the incentives make sense, what kind of information problems are there, etc. So what I do, in some ways, is at the boundary of operations and economics.

This past spring, you received the SBC Professorship of Regional Economic Development. What does this distinction mean to you both professionally and personally?
It means a couple things. I get a research fund which means I don’t have to go around scrounging for money. The kind of research I do is somewhat expensive because when people are not located here, I have to fly to see them. Also the surveys I do often cost a lot of money; they’re more expensive than surveys which can use pre-existing data.

It’s also an honor for me to hold this chair because the people who previously held it are people I think of as mentors. The first one was Mike Fogarty who was the head of REI when I came. He really set me up with some great contacts and let me overspend my budget on my first survey! Richard Shatten was the second person to hold the chair and he exemplified commitment both to serious research as well as strong ties to the community and implementation of good research methods.

In looking at the various faculty profiles online, I noticed you’re the only woman who is a full professor. Why do you think that is and do you feel you have any additional challenges?
I think that a lot of progress has been made and you see a lot less overt sexism than you used to. I believe it’s a more subtle thing now. I think there are also real issues around the way the career path of an academic that interacts with biology and family systems. Typically men are not willing to do more than half of the work in the home the way a faculty wife may do. I guess I think it’s still difficult for women to combine children and an academic career, partly because of the timing of tenure decisions and partly because it’s hard to find husbands who will pick up the slack during those difficult periods.

Please tell me a little bit about your current areas of research.
It’s going to sound like a lot of very different topics but they all relate to the way that the globalization of supply chains effects workers and firms. Economists often study simple market relationships with lots of buyers and sellers and the product is clearly defined. I’m particularly interested in looking at different kinds of relationships; I look at collaborative relationships that go on for a long time where things change a lot and the information isn’t very good and there is a lot of tacit knowledge.

For example, I’m looking at the rise of manufacturing in Mexico and its impact on children’s welfare. In another project I’m looking at engineering offshoring of automotive design work to India.  Another paper I’m working on shows how urban firms are more productive and more profitable, despite a lot of international competition. Finally, I’m looking at one firm that has four plants which essentially do the same thing. The company introduced different pay practices at different times in each of the plants. We found some evidence that the piece rate really didn’t make sense in the new manufacturing environment where team production is really important. We also found that the way the group incentive was introduced was more important than the type of pay.

You’ve talked about your current research interests. In your opinion, how does your research most benefit Cleveland and the surrounding northeast Ohio region?
People often look at the steep loss of manufacturing jobs in this area and think that manufacturing is out and we have to only focus on biotech or other industries. I hope what my research shows is that manufacturing also can be high tech. In most factories today you will see a lot of computers and robots. There is a real payoff in having both skilled managers and workers. I think a lot of managers don’t really understand or realize that. As a result, they try to get firms to compete directly with China or by imitating what China does (pushing wages down, etc). I think that the better way to be competitive is to find a different niche and in some cases, actually increase pay and definitely increase training.

I believe that is the way the majority of the Cleveland area economy is going to survive over the next few decades. For as much hype as we give biotech and medical instruments, we’re still only talking about a few thousand jobs, as compared to the numbers of jobs in northeast Ohio’s manufacturing sector.

Between your research and teaching, you must be very busy. Outside work what do you like to do in your spare time?
I live really close to Lake Erie so I like to take advantage of that by swimming and canoeing. I also like to bike. I try to bike to work occasionally. And, my husband and I enjoy a variety of sports, including hiking and camping.

You’ve lived in Cleveland for a number of years now. What is your favorite season and why?
I actually like them all! I like winter because I can go cross country skiing. Spring takes a long time to come in Cleveland, although I like the flowers such as crocuses and daffodils. Summer is great for swimming and fall is nice because of the changing leaves and it's a great time to bike. So, I really like all four. That’s one of the things I actually really like about Cleveland…the changing seasons.

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