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Thread: Small town: many hats vs. big org,: focused work

  1. #1
    Cyburbian
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    Small town: many hats vs. big org,: focused work

    As I'm imagining various futures for myself in the planning field, I'd like to toss out a variation of the public sector vs. private sector query:

    What are the pros and cons of working for a small municipality, where likely a small planning staff juggles several roles, versus working for a larger city within a larger planning department?

    As someone who has lived in fairly large cities my whole life, I am particularly curious and daunted by the idea of working in a smaller town where everyone knows me, especially in a role that is fairly public. Is it ever possible to separate the on-the-job self from the private self? Can you get a beer without feeling like you're being watched? Must one give up snarkiness permanently?

    However, in larger cities,. it seems some level of specialization is required to advance one's career. Personally, I like the constant challenge that comes with being a generalist. (I like to dive into a subject and get all geeked out, but ultimately I get bored and want to move on).

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Planit's avatar
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    You are exactly right. If you work in a small town you will be exposed to everything going on (generally) as oppossed to a large city where you will be pigeon holed (so to say). In a private gig it will be similar (small firm exposed vs. large firm specialized).

    If you work in a small town you will get to know more people and more people will know who you are. In a previous life working in a small town, I had people come to me at a restuarant and ask me about an issue or whatever. Sometimes I talked and sometimes I poliety said "Give me a call in the morning and we can talk in detail about it." I will say that being involved in several different kinds of project broadened my horizons. I never felt hasseled when I went out for a beer becuase the people that saw me was there for the same reason - to get a beer.
    "Whatever beer I'm drinking, is better than the one I'm not." DMLW
    "Budweiser sells a product they reflectively insist on calling beer." John Oliver

  3. #3
    Cyburbian TexanOkie's avatar
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    I work for a small town outside of Austin, but live in the next town over. It allows me to separate my professional and personal lives from each other. I wouldn't want to be asked questions by a select few good ol' boy zealots every time I went out to eat with my wife at the local cafe.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian AnvilPartners's avatar
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    Small Towns V. Larger Towns

    I worked with smaller towns and COGs because I wanted a lot of experience fast. You'll find you can take on whatever you want because they are generally happy to have any kind of help at all. The downside is, you can get worn out fast, and it's more likely you'll get politically flamed in smaller organizations that may not have a mature political structure. You can actually be an expendable shock absorber if the political leadership doesn't understand their role, or prizes their position more than having you around.

    Larger localities have better structure, there is a little less likelihood that you'll attract political heat, and you'll have more organizational support for help to accomplish tasks. There'll be an easier engagement too, for changes or enhancements you might create to existing systems, in that they are more used to playing new improvements across the organization. The con is that you have to deal with the structural/managerial overhead, and sometimes that means new hires don't get much responsibility, discretion or input.

    I'd recommend to anyone that they go out in the beginning when they have lots of energy and passion, get a position or two with a smaller place and really hammer at things like mad for a while. Take a few lumps, learn a few lessons, and then find a nice middle sized organization to be an assistant for a bit. Enjoy the support of an organized administration and the improved environment that more mature political environs bring. Develop a solid reputation, and then launch for the big desk in the corner. I went into private industry instead of a middle sized community, and am back again working for small localities -- but that's what I wanted to do (and another story).

    RES

  5. #5
    Cyburbian dandy_warhol's avatar
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    in the present economy i'd much rather work for a smaller town and wear various hats than be too focused and possibly more expendable.
    In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. -Martin Luther King Jr.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian Brocktoon's avatar
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    I have worked for both and for me the biggest difference is the impact you make. In a large city its small since so many things are going on and it a small city it tends to be larger. A new restaurant in a big city is no big deal but a new restaurant in a small town makes the front page.

    IMO, the question you should ask is what type of city do you want to work for most of your life? In small town you get to do many different things and make a bigger difference but in large city will will work on things that you probably never see in a small town. Both big and small cities do plats, signs, variances, etc. but in a large town you are more likely to work on a 12 story mixed use development with a below grade parking deck or a LEED certified office building. That's not a project you would ever see in a town of 5,000. Granted in a city of 500,000 you are not going to take the lead on the project but you might get to work on a piece of the project depending on your department and strengths.

    If you want to work in a big city then start there, if the idea of working is a small town is appealing the go there. I hedge my comment in that in today's economy your favorite municipality to work for should be the one that offers you a job.

    As for living in a small town see TexanOkie's comments, he hit the nail on the head.
    "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less" General Eric Shinseki

  7. #7
    Cyburbian Zoning Goddess's avatar
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    Wow, my experience has been way different from the comments posted here. For 8 years I worked for a small county with huge growth, huge projects, huge political impacts (cops searching people entering public hearings, for example); but as a junior staff planner I flew mostly under the radar, bosses taking the heat and all.

    Then 7 years as a slightly more advanced planner in a much more urban county, 3 times the size, I was always in the front lines, on tv, etc. I had more t.v. time than any other county employee, for years. Small projects but in a more intensely developed area. Big department but no way to get lost in the crowds. Way more interaction with elected officials.

    Now I'm applying for a city planner job. I've never worked for a city. It sounds like one of those "do everything" kind of positions, it's the "other side" of annexations and other issues I've dealt with working for counties. Hmmm.....

  8. #8
    Dan Staley's avatar
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    I've only worked in small towns. What TO said - live the next town over. And I agree with AnvilP to a point - I've worked in a large (private) organization as well, and the bureaucracy and BS is different and more intractable (IMO).

  9. #9
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Brocktoon View post
    If you want to work in a big city then start there, if the idea of working is a small town is appealing the go there. I hedge my comment in that in today's economy your favorite municipality to work for should be the one that offers you a job.
    Well, I have a job, thank goodness. I am currently employed as a planner for a large city in the NE that has had some . . . um. . . layoffs in the financial sector recently. The agency has around 300 employees, but I work in a field office of around 13 planners plus a few manager/admin types. Assuming I don't get laid off (which may or may not be rash, as I am a relatively recent hire), I'll stay where I am for another year or two (I've been in the job about a year so far).

    My job is kind of a generalist position, in that I get to take projects through the study- proposal- review-adoption process, as well as taking on lots of land use and zoning issues that come up in my assigned area (my area containing several hundered thousand residents, mind you). But really all I do is zoning. I consider the whole range of plannerly concerns in the process of creating and evaluating a proposal, but my only tool is zoning. No capital investment, no small business outreach, no green building, no feasibility studies or pro formas . .

    What is probably in my future beyond a couple of years is a move back to the west coast where my family is and there is a better balance between salary and cost of living. Amazingly, even in California the balance is better than where I am currently.

    So I can't help but notice these small towns and suburban cities that are hiring planners, and wonder. . . would that work for me?

  10. #10
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    I don't think anyone has mentioned the family/social side of things. I went the small town route, often in quite isolated locations. I have been married since before the first job. MA is a teacher and has always found work. We do not care to go out much; which is good, because in small towns there is no place to go. If you are single, the dating pool is at best limited in smaller areas. It is perhaps hypocritical, but I let a lot of crap slide by from associates when my views differ. I can talk farming, hunting, country music, but I would rather not. As for politics and religion, well, I just listen or walk away. When I recruit employees, I make certain that the small town "fit" is there.

  11. #11
    Dan Staley's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Future Planning Diva View post
    Well, I have a job, thank goodness.

    So I can't help but notice these small towns and suburban cities that are hiring planners, and wonder. . . would that work for me?
    You'll need to do something other than current planning if you want to go to a small town; the biggest rewards IMHO are from the long-range stuff. If you can't get long-range planning at your current place, do something on the side. You'll need it. Figure out how to do it, now (even if you don't go to a small town eventually).

    And building on mike g's point, small town is a mindset. Pay attention to what folks say on this thread because small towns are not cities (if you don't understand this, then there's an issue). If you're single, you'll need to know someone in the city well enough to crash there, because you'll find yourself in the city more and more.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian rcgplanner's avatar
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    I have been very fortunate in working for smaller organizations. When I was in school I interned for a city of 60,000 and a planning staff of 4 professional planners. I was exposed to many things and it has helped my resume. My current position is in a suburb of 12,000 and a staff of 2 planners. Once again I have been exposed to many different things here. In talking to some of my friends from school they are a bit jealous when I tell them about all of the things I have gotten experience with. One of my friends is in a large city and has been pigeonholed in his job. It has lead to a lot of dissatisfaction in his job.

    This is not to say everything is rosy in a smaller organization. You oftentimes have a lot more responsiblity and exposure to the winds of politics. When there are less people between you and the politicians, you can be closer to the bulleye of their wrath. Another issue is less of a chance to advance within the org., when you are one of 2 or 3 planners, there isn't much room to advance until the few others in front of you leave.

    I agree with what others say about living in a small comunity if you work in the same one. You have a lot less privacy. I don't work in the same city that I live in, but when I go out to lunch during the week people oftentimes will bother me. I have managed to avoid the issue that mike gurnee mentioned by staying close to major cities, it helps to give me more of a social life.

  13. #13
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    I work for a smaller city east of Dallas. I agree with everyone about the exposure to a broad field of planning. I agree with AnvilPartners about how fast you can be worn out and how the political side of things can be questionable at best.

    I am experiencing this as we speak. I've been here almost nine months and the wear and tear on me is prevalent. When I went home (East Coast) for Thanksgiving and everyone was saying how much older I looked and were giving me "Now you know what the real world is like" speeches.

    I do appreciate the knowledge I am learning here, but it has also taught me what I do and do not like about planning.

    As for the social scene, this area is does not cater to the young professionals, fresh out of school. One thing I should have considered when I moved here.

    So keep in mind where you want to work. If you don't think your gonna like the "small town" feel then chances are you need to reconsider the position.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    I agree with everything that's been posted regarding small town planning in this thread. I lived in the town where I work for my first year here but moved out because I hated running into planning board members and town politicians while getting coffee or dinner downtown and having to spontaneously shift gears into a work mindset while trying to relax.

    The exposure to the political BS is also very real on the small town level. I'm one of two planners a three person office (including our planning/zoning clerk) and my boss, the chief planner, is my only insulation from the nasty, endless local politics. Every community has its cast of "usual suspects", so to speak, from chamber of commerce types, to community activists who see you as a technocrat and puppet of the Man, to politicians who think in-hour planning staff is a waste of taxpayers' time and money and that our work should be farmed out to consultants. It really takes its toll and has been especially rough during the recent round of budget talks. It's tough and sometimes I think working as one of a larger group of staff would be pretty nice. It's probably best to get experience in both worlds - one forces you to know a little bit about a lot of things, while the other lets you zero in on a particular facet of planning and get more in-depth with it.

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