Beyond the Public/Private Dichotomy: Big Workplace or Small?

A previous post (Where Should I Work?) discussed the merits of public, private and nonprofit organizations, and different types of planning work.

Those are not the only choices you face, though, as the size of the organization influences your experience.

Many planners argue the merits of working for a small organization early on. My first job was for a two-planner consulting firm. My boss handed me all the responsibility I could handle, and I completed a wide variety of tasks. I accompanied her to meetings (to make the firm look larger), and in my first year, represented a client on my own at a hearing. Having to account for billable hours made me efficient with my time, and competing for business was fast-paced and exciting.

The downside of this organization was that my boss was busy and frequently out of the office, so there wasn’t time to train and mentor me. The sink-or-swim experience was stressful, but as I look back, it was a pivotal in my professional growth.

If you chose a small organization, compensate for the lack of mentoring by getting involved in APA, networking, and finding an outside mentor. Also, you can gain exposure to work in larger organizations if your small firm is a sub consultant to larger firms or your small public agency works with a regional, state or federal agency.

In a large organization, you have a defined position with a job description and a place in the organizational hierarchy. Working for a large organization can provide training, mentoring, collaboration, and develop your skills working in teams.

After working for small consulting firms, my next job was at a large, well-funded redevelopment agency. The agency had financial stability and good benefits, sleek furniture, and lots of resources. I learned about real estate economics, for example, by collaborating with staff in the real estate and finance departments. I learned about best practices because the organization could afford specialists.

Large organizations may limit the range of tasks you are assigned and your level of responsibility. If you have many interests and skills, you may be “pigeonholed” in the skill most necessary to the organization. Your other skills may not develop. Also, things move slower and the layers of hierarchy and bureaucracy may seem stifling.

One alumnus told me a full-time planning position felt like an internship because the immediate boss couldn’t provide timely direction — getting decisions through layers of management took time.

I’ve provided no clarity on whether small or large organizations are better, so you may wish to gain experiences in different-sized organizations. Regardless of your choice, seek out the most highly regarded ones.

When starting out, just getting a job seems hard enough, but if early career experiences are in a poorly run organization, it can limit you. You may learn bad habits and your inspiration may take a hit. Take the time to get word-of-mouth information about the internal culture of organizations you’re considering. Is it constantly “putting out fires,” or is there enough stability for training, good management, and mentoring?

Keep your ear to the ground, network, and seek work in target organization types that provide those latter qualities.

Read previous installments of this blog series, "A Guide for the Idealist," here. This blog series is amplified in Richard Willson’s book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career. The book includes perspectives, tools, advice, and personal anecdotes. It is available now at Routledge, Amazon, and most retailers.

Top image: Thinkstock photo.


About the Author

Richard Willson, FAICP

Richard Willson, FAICP, is a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona. He has also served as department chair, interim dean, and independent planning consultant. Willson's research addresses planning practice and parking policy. His book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career, amplifies the themes in this blog series. Willson is also the author of Parking Reform Made Easy (Island Press, 2013) and Parking Management for Smart Growth (2015). Willson holds a PhD in urban planning from the University of California, Los Angeles, a Master of Planning from the University of Southern California, and a Bachelor of Environmental Studies from the University of Waterloo.


November 22, 2016

By Richard Willson, FAICP