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Thread: Life of a consultant?

  1. #1
    Cyburbian
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    Life of a consultant?

    I'd like to know if anyone has insight into what life is like as a consultant, i.e., a private sector urban planner / urban designer (e.g., a firm such as Sasaki). Things such as working hours per week, travel requirements, salary vs public sector, stress level vs public sector, etc.

    I'm at the beginning of my planning education but wanted to start info-gathering on potential careers in the couple years when I finish my MUP.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    I did 15 years in private development, non-profit, and government before starting to consult in 2004. Since then I have both worked for a large (250 person) enginnering consulting firm and have had my own consulting business. This lets me say that it really depends on where you get a job and what kind of work you do.

    I like travel and the opportunity to work in very diverse communities, so I have always pursued these kinds of projects/ My specialization is in economic development, market analysis, and business districts, so the projects I do tend to have less need for community interaction than, say, a comprehensive plan or neighborhood plan. I may travel two or three times to the client during the project, which may take from four to eight months to complete. Each trip is anywhere from three to six days. I will often extend a trip by a day or two to take in some of the nearby attractions.

    My planning projects tend to be closer to home because there is a need for more onteraction with the client and the public. These projects can take anywhere from six months to two years to finish, during which I may have one or more meetings a month. Those meetings are almost always in the morning or evening, and since I may have to travel up to three or four hours to get there, they make for some long days.

    Deadlines tend to create some stress, especially when you may be working on several projects at once. Most consultants put in more than 40 hours on a regular basis, but a good company will also give you some flexibility to set your schedule and take off time when you need to run errands, etc. In terms of salary, I made more as an economic development director than I did as a consultant working for a company, though I hope in my own business I will exceed that. Benefits are comparable, except for retirement. But then, public sector pension systems are about to go the way of the dinosaurs.

    You mentioned a well-know planning consultant in your post. Frankly, I would stay away from that type of firm, where they trade on an "aura" and you would expect to see people walking around in black turtlenecks. Also stay away from the multinational conglomerates with offices in dozens of cities around the world. In both of these places you are likely to remain a technician doing the grunt work in the background while a handful of others get all of the fun. Look for a modest-sized planning or enginnering firm with a solid body of work and good reputation, or a small firm that specializes without being flashy. There you will have the most flexibility and exposure to all elements of planning.
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  3. #3
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by FuturePlanner View post
    I'd like to know if anyone has insight into what life is like as a consultant, i.e., a private sector urban planner / urban designer (e.g., a firm such as Sasaki). Things such as working hours per week, travel requirements, salary vs public sector, stress level vs public sector, etc.

    I'm at the beginning of my planning education but wanted to start info-gathering on potential careers in the couple years when I finish my MUP.
    No two days are ever the same. Unlike the public sector, billable hours plays a huge role, even at the entry level. When you first start at the entry-level, you will quickly learn to billing codes to various projects, the number of billable hours it takes to complete a task, and how to multitask. Most employers are pretty lenient with new hires fresh out of school, as it will take sometimes up to 1-2 years for the worker to master the tasks. Depending on the size of the firm, you may be required to play a more active role in proposal writing, marketing your firm's services through networking and professional involvement, and adjusting hours accordingly. You will also quickly learn that budgets are slashed and pies are sliced very generously by management, often leaving the entry-level with a bunch of work to do but far fewer hours to complete the tasks. This might mean staying late and working on projects without billing that time to the client in order to get the work done. Right now, I am billing on average about 50-55 hours per week (usually M-F), 5-7 hours per week doing APA volunteer work (I am much more busy preparing for the Fall Conference), and 1-2 hours a week learning Microstation (at home or at work). However, this activity is not typical especially during a recession.

    No two firms are the same. This is my second consulting job in a row. The first company was a 15 person planning, landscape architecture, and ecology firm. My current job is in a +300 person engineering firm. In both cases, the planning staff is very small: I staffed the entire planning department at job #1 and there are only two planners in job #2. I like it this way because I have more freedom to come up with more ideas and implement them without too many people checking over my shoulder.

    The smaller the firm the more likely the owner(s) will take a stronger role in your work, sometimes to the point of micro managing your work. This was the case at my first job. Don't expect to be a project manager within the first year either. This may take years to build up the principal's trust. As a consultant, your first job is to find work and keep finding work. Marketing never stops. Each meeting, each phone call, each email, is a direct or indirect way of marketing your services and building credibility among your existing and potential clients.

    Large international firms like Sasaki, EDAW (or whatever it is called now), Gensler, etc. can do great work but you are really a small fish in a big pond. When you are working in firms with headquarters in other cities it is much harder to make your presence known and demonstrate your worth to the much larger company. Often you would be reporting to the person right above you. However, these firms have also shut down entire branch offices with the stroke of a pen. Keep in mind, not every client wants the big name firms. Smaller, regional firms, often capitalize on their proximity, smaller staffs, and lower billable rates, as way of countering the much larger firms. Bigger is not always better.
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  4. #4
    I currently work in the public sector, and I have also worked as a consultant for a large municipality for a few years. I'll compare my experiences side-by-side.

    On average, I put in a little over 50 hours a week as a consultant. As long as the client believed you were doing quality work, there was no problem. You're paid hourly. Although the public sector is 8-5, I find myself putting in many extra hours due to being understaffed and under deadlines. Unfortunately, I do not get overtime being a salaried employee. Excessive comp time is frowned upon, so I don't always report all the hours worked.

    Salary as a consultant was excellent! Especially since it was based on billable hours and not a salary. However, the benefits in the public sector are superior. It's an interesting trade off. When I do the math on a straight 40-hour a week, the numbers balance out.

    Consultants can find themselves on the road 7 days a week and be away from home for months on the time. It really depends on the project. As a consultant, I had a lot of flexibility to attend conferences and travel. This is absent from my current career due to budget reasons. I travel sometimes but only when its absolutely necessary and never more than a week.

    Stress is an interesting one to tackle. I feel there is an equal amount of stress in both career paths.

    What's really neat about the public sector is you can take ownership in your work, and you work in the community you serve. As a consultant, I was pigeonholed into a specific task on a single project. And at first I didn't fully understand or appreciate the community I worked in. Just when you begin to feel comfortable, it's time to move on to the next city and project.

    My advice is to due both early on in life. There is a lot of interaction between the public sector and consultants, and being able to understand how both think is an excellent ability that isn't taught in college.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian
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    Likely the one thing that you will learn from these responses is that everyone's experience is different. I've been a land planning and urban design consultant for 25 years. For the last 15 years I have been an equity owner. For the last 10 years I have been a sole owner. Other than the fact that I'm not making much at all right now because of the economy, I love being a consultant. However, I realize that my situation is probably unique because I sit at the top of my own pile. I work hard and have become extremely meticulous about the quality of my work. I am always on time with my work because I have learned how important having a reputation is among my clients for quality work that is there when I promised it.

    Every day is different and I work on a wide variety of projects in a wide variety of places. In my opinion being a consultant is great but I have had breaks that others might not have and have made the best of my situation by my work ethic. When times are good I work between 50 and 60 hours a week, but I enjoy my work and I'm old enough now where its just my wife and I at home and she has her work to keep her busy when I'm busy. When times are good I make a lot of money and the reward makes the hard work easier to handle. I don't ever take a real vacation because no matter where I am clients know they can reach me if they really need to. They know however that if I have to do something while I am on vacation it may cost them double my normal hourly rate for the inconvenience so they only ask if they have no other alternative and I am happy to oblige under those circumstances.

    I love my work as a consultant but I have created a position where I call enough of the shots to make it work for me. I have the respect of my colleagues and clients because I work hard and make their jobs easier and more profitable like I expect mine to be as well.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    I will echo the other responses. Although some days seemed the same, especially when working on the same project for weeks on end, there is something rewarding about consulting, especially when you work in long range plans. Before I left the private sector this year I was always thrilled to see what I created 2 or 3 years ago on flimsey come alive through the construction process (and always cringed when an agency did not implement a policy correctly).

    My previous employer made some mistakes IMO and the economy led me out of the private sector and to a more stable muni. The pay was great by the benefits sucked, especially for a guy supporting a family. My new job my benefits are just flat out superior. I did travel a lot during th boom but was more seditary towards the end. I guess the biggest thng I miss about the private sector is "visioning" where now I do a lot of "current planning" which has its own rewards but way smaller then passing a great comp plan. I worked for a medimum size firm so I learned a lot from my old boss. I work for a medium size muni now and all the planners on staff have design backgrounds which to me is great thing. Good luck!
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  7. #7
    Cyburbian
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    Thank you all for the helpful input. I like the variety of work inherent in consulting but am on the fence a little about the travel; I'm a consultant now (in a different industry) and being on the road constantly is wearing.

    One question regarding the large firms (EDAW, etc.) -- are your impressions based on personal experience or impressions you've gotten from working in the field?

  8. #8
    Cyburbian
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    I worked for a planning consulting firm for 5 years after graduate school and have now been in the public sector for 4 years. I am very thankful that I took that path because doing consulting work first exposed me to local governments who were interested in progress, best practices, etc. If I had started off in my current agency, I would be way underexposed to the things I mention above. If I had to pick one or the other, and stick with it, I would pick consulting. The work was more interesting and more suited to my skills (at the time I was only ghost writing and my boss was doing the big scary presentations - which I am now much more skilled at, having to do them every week or so for City Council or P&Z). My traveling wasn't too bad, maybe because I was relatively young and new. My boss in consulting was a brainiac in his sub-field of planning and so I really gained a lot from working with him. The bosses I've had in the public sector have been chair-fillers in a lot of ways.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian TerraSapient's avatar
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    I think where you work/live makes a difference as well. I have never had a public sector planning job. I have been working in the private sector for almost 2 years now. Since I live in Hawaii, travel is a regular part of my job since most successful planning firms here work not only in the state, but in the entire Pacific Basin, including the South Pacific and Asia. Hawaii is in the middle of nowhere, so trips are typically at least 12 hours of travel time each way. What this means as a consultant is usually 14 hours of traveling, 2-4 hours of sleep, 10-12 hour days for a few days, followed by another 2-4 hours of sleep, flying back, and then being at the office first thing Monday morning without having a weekend. It is a lot of work.
    Of course, I am entry level so I merrily accept any job I am given, even if it means I have to go places where the water isn't safe to drink, electricity may not be reliable (something that requires a lot of planning ahead for when giving presentations with electricity-consuming robots). I do it with a smile, because I know someday I will be senior level, then a principal, and all will be right in the world.

    I am interested to hear that some of my fellow private sector planners here are not on salary. I am a salary compensated planner, which means all those hours I work over 40 are free and the profit goes to my boss. Maybe it is time to have a conversation about that?

  10. #10
    Some of these replies treat being a consultant and working for a consultant firm synonymously. If you are your own consultant I imagine that, yes, you would be putting in some long hours drumming up business, as any business-starter would do. But working for an established consultant firm is another thing entirely. I worked for an established but small planning firm in CA and although there was occasional travel, most of the work was at the office, talking with clients over the phone or email. Average was 40 hours a week, 50 or more if there was a deadline. I worked on-demand mostly, where slow weeks allowed me to step out for an afternoon and catch a movie, or busy weeks demanded that I skip lunch, and come in on the weekends. You just do what needs to be done, and I was lucky enough to work for a great boss who realized there were less productive times.

    But now I work for the DoD in the D.C. area and everything is completely different, where there are systems upon systems and processes upon processes to make sure everything is as standardized and rigid as possible. Little room for your own individual project management style. But there are other perks, such as a hell of a lot more continuous training and more opportunities for advancement. If you're going to be in the rat race, you might as well be in a bigger race where the prizes matter more.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian jswanek's avatar
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    .

    My baby sis works for an international engineering consulting firm, and there is radical shaking-out going on in that field. Firms are being sold to others, who then keep only the cheapest employees, mix them in with the staff at the buy-out firm, and let everyone know the new guys and gals are cheaper than they are. Besides, the 20-somethings have neither HBP or Osteoporosis, and you can be damn sure mange-ment is thinking about that.

    .

  12. #12
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by jswanek View post
    .

    My baby sis works for an international engineering consulting firm, and there is radical shaking-out going on in that field. Firms are being sold to others, who then keep only the cheapest employees, mix them in with the staff at the buy-out firm, and let everyone know the new guys and gals are cheaper than they are. Besides, the 20-somethings have neither HBP or Osteoporosis, and you can be damn sure mange-ment is thinking about that.

    .
    A handful of the newly-established consulting firms I know came about for this reason. The senior people were let go when the firm was acquired. Without many other options, they have started their own businesses. The acquiring firm will trade on their work even though they are gone.
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