Finding Your Way to the Best Planning Job

Spring is here and so is the season of applying for jobs for newly minted planners.

Most planners have decided on the substantive focus of their intended work, such as land use, transportation, environmental, or community development, but charting a career path requires the broader considerations discussed here.

Previous Idealist posts discussed government, private, and nonprofit sectors, organization size, opportunities for creativity, and alignment with one's values. Here is another factor: finding the best organization in a particular field and sector.

Evaluating Potential Employers

"Best" can mean many things, of course, and so aspiring planners should reflect on what is best for them. That could include agreement with the organization's mission or factors such as organizational stability, innovation, employee support and development, team culture, staff turnover, and management quality.

Job seekers should find out how a prospective organization is regarded by consulting with a wide variety of sources. Consider the following methods:

  • Network with colleagues at conferences and in one-on-one informational meetings. Use alumni connections in organizations of interest. Ask mentors.
  • Research the organization's track record, as shown in winning awards from APA or other organizations.
  • Examine the organization's work products.
  • Review the organization's public relations materials and strategic plan (with a grain of salt, since what is espoused is not always what happens).
  • Look for media stories and blog posts about the organization.

If a municipal planning job is of interest:

Check the currency of the comprehensive plan. Departments in "survival mode" are consumed by current planning controversies and may not allocate time for comprehensive plan rewrites.

Assess the allocation of long-range and policy studies among staff and consultants. If most work goes to consultants, then the planner may do more contract management than planning.

Learn if council members respect the professionalism of the urban planning department. Does the city take leadership roles in regional issues? Is it proactive? Or is there a siege mentality?

Inquire about the municipality's reputation for integrity on the part of the council and boards, the city manager, and the planning director.

For larger public agencies, find out about the reputation of the particular department within the larger organization, the narrowness or breadth of staff roles, and opportunities for new experiences. Are there well-defined career ladders and does staff turnover provide opportunities for advancement?

If selecting among consulting firms:

Understand the form of ownership (publically held versus employee-owned) and its implications for building new practices and innovation.

Learn about the frame of mind of mid-level managers. Are they in survival mode or interested in staff development?

Gather information about the firm's reputation for integrity, as viewed by seasoned professionals.

If considering a job in a nonprofit organization:

Assess the quality of the strategic plan and the level of involvement of the board of directors.

Consider how the organization's impact is defined and measured.

Evaluate the organization's funding stability and integrity in the use of grant funds.

Watch out for mission creep. Is the organization stretched too many ways in an attempt to attract funding?

No Job Is Perfect

Job seekers should not take this post to mean that a job must be perfect. No job is perfect, and an imperfect one may lead to a dream job down the road. By all means, get started!

These considerations can be used in targeting particular jobs and organizations, and in good times, in choosing among multiple job offers. Since there is usually not enough time to properly apply for all the jobs available, it is better to thoroughly investigate those that are the best fit. Job search strategy is a critical component of launching and navigating a planning career.

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: Getty Images photo.

About the Author
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

May 1, 2018

By Richard Willson, FAICP