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Thread: Long-term career prospects for planners

  1. #1
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    Long-term career prospects for planners

    It's pretty clear that the immediate employment prospects for planners are grim. I've read that almost every opening in the field has hundreds (or even thousands) of people applying for it, and many people in this forum have mentioned job postings (many of them for senior positions) with salaries in the low 30s or even the 20s. Obviously, the recession has hit the field hard. However, I want to know the long-term outlook. How will the prospects look two, five, 10, or 15 years down the road? These things are difficult to project, of course, but making projections is part of a planner's job, right?

    I come to this forum as an outsider who is interested in getting into the planning field (but concerned about the prospects for employment). I'm 29 and currently work as a software developer. From the standpoint of salary and job opportunities, I'm certainly in a good field. However, I've found that I really don't like the work all that much, and urban planning is something that really interests me. I've always been fascinated by the demographics, history, and development of cities. Growing up, I was disgusted by the suburban sprawl that rapidly overtook my small home town and gobbled up the surrounding woods and countryside, and I always wanted to do something to combat this trend. In short, I feel a strong intellectual draw to the field of planning, and I think (or at least hope) that it is an opportunity to do a great public service. However, like anyone who is considering going to grad school and accumulating piles of debt, I have to wonder how well my investment would pay off.

    Some of the things I want to know are: When do you envision the job market for planners improving? What will the prospects be like then, in terms of both salary and the number of opportunities (vs the number of qualified applicants)? In a brighter future job market, will planners typically need to be willing to take a job anywhere (geographically) in order to have career mobility? Obviously, in the current job market, planners need to be willing to move to wherever they can find a job, but I don't know if this is true in better economic times, or if it will be true in whatever future lies ahead for the field.

    Thanks in advance for your replies.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    Stick with software development. The BS to reward ratio in municipal planning is a lot worse in this field than it is in yours. Do a search here on Cyburbia... you'll see what I mean. If you want to get involved in planning issues, volunteer with your local community board or with Transportation Alternatives or something. It'll bring your high minded ideals down to size. FWIW, the longer I stay in the field the more I realize that volunteering to serve on an appointed board or even running for office are often more effective avenues to implement progressive planning than working as a pro planner.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by MacheteJames View post
    Stick with software development. The BS to reward ratio in municipal planning is a lot worse in this field than it is in yours. Do a search here on Cyburbia... you'll see what I mean. If you want to get involved in planning issues, volunteer with your local community board or with Transportation Alternatives or something. It'll bring your high minded ideals down to size. FWIW, the longer I stay in the field the more I realize that volunteering to serve on an appointed board or even running for office are often more effective avenues to implement progressive planning than working as a pro planner.
    I agree with this, and the issue is that the folks I know who are in software make much more money, and the extra money can buy you antacid while you suffer your paycheck and look for a rewarding hobby.

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    Thanks for the replies. My lofty ideals are confronting a bruising reality, but it's good to get honest answers from people who are working in the field. Any dissenting voices?

    I will look into getting involved with Transportation Alternatives, the Straphangers Campaign, and the local community board.

  5. #5
    With the economy the way it is, trying to do what you love (or even like) is hard and as idealistic as we [planners] are, optimism is waning.

    I got into planning because I think I would enjoy it, but ended up working in a sub-sector of the field I have little interest in, just because it was the only job I could get. Glad to be employed at all, but not doing the kind of thing I thought when I got into it. Point being that planning is a broad field and you can't be sure you'll end up doing what you want if you make the jump of a career change.

    I would suggest finding a crossover area - for instance, I've seen a lot of jobs for programming GIS web applications for planning use.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian The District's avatar
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    those of us in the private sector have relatively minimal exposure to the daily politics of municipalities, so there are ways to be a planner and not deal with the public and public officials as much as public sector planners do.

    in regards to salary, you're probably better off in software development for sure, even in the long run.

    all that aside, i think you're biggest challenge will be breaking into the field any less than 5 years from now. it's really crowded with candidates, so even talented people are getting marginalized. since you'd be coming in fresh, you'll be at a disadvantage.

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    For those who have worked in the planning field during brighter economic times, have you had to move around a lot (geographically) in order to have mobility in your career? Is it realistic to try and live only in big cities (where I prefer to live), or do you need to be willing to move to rural or suburban areas (even in better economies than the current one)?

  8. #8
    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by BKTransplant View post
    For those who have worked in the planning field during brighter economic times, have you had to move around a lot (geographically) in order to have mobility in your career? Is it realistic to try and live only in big cities (where I prefer to live), or do you need to be willing to move to rural or suburban areas (even in better economies than the current one)?
    No. I moved up through my company, and got me feet wet in everything, however it was in a place i did not desire to live in. I think it really just depends on where and what you do. More often than not, the bigger city you work for (public side), the bigger the beauracy is probablity that your planning gig is mundane increases. On the private side, the bigger firm you work for (assuming the large farms are located in big cities, to which you haven't really defined, but assuming places like NYC, LA, etc) then the more likely you will be pegionholed by doing the same thing over, and over, and over again, thus making your life mundane. Really it is not about geographics moving up the ladder, but the size of your employer that dictates how quickly you move up or learn about many things.
    Men do dumb $hit... it is what they do to correct the problem that counts.

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    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    I think it also depends on what part of the country you're in, and whether the community you're working for is growing or not. I've seen agencies in the Rust Belt where the staff remains unchanged for a decade or more. We're talking about Planner IIs that have held the same position for 10 or 20 years. The only time there's room for advancement is when someone retires.
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

  10. #10
    OH....IO Hink's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by CPSURaf View post
    Really it is not about geographics moving up the ladder, but the size of your employer that dictates how quickly you move up or learn about many things.
    I agree with this. If you are at a smaller place you take on more responsibility, but have much less ability to move up. You might get a title change every couple years or so, but not really a change of position. Large agencies have more positions, more turn over, and more ability to change your job.
    A common mistake people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools. -Douglas Adams

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    Quote Originally posted by CPSURaf View post
    On the private side, the bigger firm you work for (assuming the large farms are located in big cities, to which you haven't really defined, but assuming places like NYC, LA, etc) then the more likely you will be pegionholed by doing the same thing over, and over, and over again, thus making your life mundane. Really it is not about geographics moving up the ladder, but the size of your employer that dictates how quickly you move up or learn about many things.
    My definition of "big cities" is pretty loose, I guess. I'm thinking about not just the biggest cities like New York, LA, and Chicago, but smaller cities like Austin, Portland, Seattle, etc.

    How do the prospects of simply finding a job compare in cities vs. suburban areas? Of course there are more opportunities in cities, but there's also obviously a higher concentration of qualified applicants. Do the job markets in cities tend to be saturated with planners?

  12. #12
    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by BKTransplant View post
    How do the prospects of simply finding a job compare in cities vs. suburban areas? Of course there are more opportunities in cities, but there's also obviously a higher concentration of qualified applicants. Do the job markets in cities tend to be saturated with planners?
    The reality is it is slim pickings everywhere. When you apply to markets such as Portland or Austin, these are places that are highly sought out by grads and others, so your competing applicant pool will be high and the bar will be raised. Now that may be detering, but without any real "network" the likelyhood if you getting a job in a large metro decreases, unless you already live there. As you fan out of the metro into more suburban locations and rural locations outside of these Cities, you are more likely to encounter less applicants, however look at it as "getting your feet wet" to prep you for the big leagues. Think of it as your time in the minors.

    And the job market is just saturated period.
    Men do dumb $hit... it is what they do to correct the problem that counts.

  13. #13
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    For those not in planning as a career

    I agree volunteering on a board and influencing policy is a great avenue. If you come to understand the issues, even better. Even in "progressive" towns I've seen boards who believe their mission is to be a voice for the NIMBY activist, keep riffraff out of upper-middle class neighborhoods, or make sure the government madates lots of free parking! So understanding the issues, and how to communicate about them, is important.

    As a municipal planner you may have very little leeway to actually inform decision-makers about the consequences of their actions - it depends on the philosophy of management.

    That said, I woulnd't deter you from enterring what could be an exciting field - just don't do it soon and take jobs from those of us already here!

    I would recommend exploring - consulting (if you are in software development, there is obviously using GIS or design software, but also various companies such as Place Matters are developing visualization software and interactive software for public participation and always improving how these systems work);
    Also explore the non-profit sector, whether your interest is transit, cycling, green stormwater management, or local food systems, there are more and more non-profits around these issues - networking would be key;
    Look at government agencies, including universities, cooperative extension, that provide technical assistance.
    I wouldn't rule out municipal government, and certainly have enjoyed many aspects of one of my jobs, but just be cautious, find out what it's really like.

  14. #14
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    Thanks for your replies, everyone. Out of curiosity, how do the job markets in other countries compare to the US? I know that it's hard to compare, since most people have probably worked exclusively (or at least primarily) in one country, but still, any insight on the relative prospects for planners in different countries would be interesting. In another thread, one person mentioned China as a potential area of opportunity.

    Also, do many planners carve out a niche working in disaster-struck areas (Haiti, Chile, northwestern China, for example)?

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