Strategies for the Delayed Career Launch

The progression from planning school to planning employment normally happens soon after graduation. The young planner’s degree is “fresh” and a timely transition is expected.

But what happens if a planner’s career launch is delayed? This post discusses a game plan for getting back on track.

A delayed launch can happen for many reasons. After I received my undergraduate degree in planning, I experienced 18 confidence-sapping months before I found full-time planning employment (I graduated during a recession).

Even though unemployment is low today, some communities are still working their way out the financial and mortgage crises that started in 2007. Millennial career and life paths have clearly been affected. But poor economic times are not the only reason. Other reasons include:

  • Having a non-planning job that is essential to pay the bills but eats up job search and planning networking time.
  • Being geographically constrained because of family obligations, supporting a family business, or caring for family members.
  • Travelling or having other enriching life experiences before starting a professional career.
  • Weak job-search skills. This can include a lack of professional networking or internship experiences. There may be problems with resume and cover letter quality, interview preparation, interview skills, or other factors.
  • Being unsure about your purpose, easily distracted, fearful of becoming a professional, or too picky about job location, type, organization, or starting level.

So what can be done? Those with a delayed launch are competing with recent graduates who tell a more clear-cut story. The first step is to accept the predicament and seek to understand the reasons for it.

Here are some useful strategies.

Find a mentor, career counselor, or a coach to help you improve your narrative, search for opportunities, identify job leads, and address skill and knowledge gaps.

Translate your non-planning work experience into planning skills. If you’ve worked at the Apple store, you probably have good interpersonal and problem solving skills. Local cities may be looking for just such a person to deal with constituents with calm and tact. If you’ve substitute taught in high school, you know how to manage a rowdy community meeting.

Be creative in thinking about planning jobs. For example, experience in facilities management may apply to campus planning for a university or school district. Work for UPS could be a transition to port or airport planning. Sales experience may apply to client development and proposal writing in consulting.

Make it clear how your life experience makes you an effective planner. If you speak multiple languages, you will be attractive to many agencies. If you have children, you’ve learned a lot about multitasking, which may be an asset in a fast-paced planning office.

Have a compelling story to tell about your delayed launch. For example, life experience gained through travelling or volunteering may be relevant to a planning job. And make sure your resume doesn’t have unexplained gaps.

Sell yourself, but make sure you can deliver what you are selling. Use feedback from professors, employers, personality assessment tools and other measures to articulate your core competencies, and then emphasize those in your materials.

If you can afford it, seek an unpaid internship with a highly regarded planning agency. This will give you experience for your resume, and if you perform well, references and job contacts.

Make cold calls to organizations of interest for informational interviews, even if there is no job available. Ask those interviewees who else you should talk with. Send follow-up thank you notes. If you are offered a job-qualifying test or interview, prepare, prepare, prepare.

Rather than apply to hundreds of jobs with little preparation, put the time into focusing on those that are the best fit. Tailor your resume and cover letter to the job, visit the community, and review meeting minutes and online discussion posts. Ask for feedback on your application materials from other professionals. Find out if there are alumni from your school in the organization, and then contact them.

If you have a bachelor’s degree, consider obtaining a master's in planning to “reset” your career path.

A delayed career launch is frustrating, but it can be overcome. It requires clear identification of your assets, a determined effort, creativity, and flexibility. The payoff is a career in service of the public good.

Thank you to Robin Scherr for contributing ideas to this piece.

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.


July 7, 2017

By Richard Willson, FAICP