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Careers Urban planning career woes

Messages
5
Points
0
I am 30 and work as a senior planner for a midsized community for five years. I make good money for the area (frankly the highest I have seen by a long shot barring any higher positions) and the benefits are excellent… but I am starting to burn out and hate my job. I think it goes beyond the Drew Carey quote: “Oh, you hate your job? Why didn't you say so? There's a support group for that. It's called everybody, and they meet at the bar.”

Anyway, I heard about this community and maybe I can gain some perspective. I’m posting this as part seeking advice, part venting session. I’ll start with what I love about my job:
  • Public sector benefits are excellent. My salary allows me to live the life I want. My workplace is relatively flexible with time off, however, I do wish I had more PTO. The hours are manageable, and the commute is not horrible.
  • I love project management. Seeing projects through from beginning to end is extremely rewarding.
  • I love budgets. I enjoy managing money and capital improvement plans.
  • Problem solving is fun. I like the complex and detailed projects and the big picture thinking.
And on to what I’ve been feeling burnt out about:
  • To start, coronavirus is not being taken seriously at the administration building. My coworkers do not always follow City set policies like social distancing or wearing a mask in communal areas. Leadership is also lax on policy. I raised concerns with HR about the lack of response and all that was done was a City-wide email restating the policies. We worked from home for a bit and it was the happiest I had been in a long time. I got my entire workload done efficiently and responded promptly to everyone and anyone. I had time to think without someone poking their head into my cubicle to ask a question I have answered before numerous times. I had my fancy coffee set up, I did not have a commute, I did not have to wear business attire, I could take my dog on a walk during lunch, I could do a few squats or pushups in the middle of the day, I could run a load of laundry. My relationship was better (and it is so great already!). My mental health was better. Once I finished my work, I did not have to pretend I was working by having my butt in a chair. Returning to the office has been miserable. I am anxious all the time about having to ask folks to put on a mask or wait for me to put my mask on. Coworkers come into my cubicle and ask “quick” things without a mask so I do not even have time to ask. Coworkers have held meetings in a small conference room without proper distancing or a mask in sight. I am frequently on the outside because I keep asking for the meetings to be accessible by Skype so I can take them from my cubicle, but I can’t help but feel like I’m getting painted as a doomsday weirdo. HR and leadership have clearly shown that they are not committed to following CDC guidelines (i.e. people who can work from home, should do so). After being back, I requested to continue to work from home and was denied as I am a vital employee.
  • While I do not deal with elected officials often, I feel like I was taking crazy pills when I do. I can never pin the City mayor down on direction even after tailoring my questions to be very pointed and direct, only to receive overarching opinion that do not answer the question or flat out ignore it. I have wasted hours talking in circles with the mayor. The direction from leadership changes depending on the weather (or in MANY cases, who the applicant is on any given project). They are hypocritical and do not use any normal form of logic. The only thing I can think of is that they want to continue their fiefdom and will do anything in their will power to do so. They are constantly late for things and miss meetings scheduled well in advance. They love to talk about best practices, but when it is time to put the rubber to the road, everyone freezes up. Our City talks the talk, but does not walk the walk.
  • Lack of opportunity for advancement. When I was first hired in five years ago, I had a carrot dangled in front of me for a great promotion. But due to several factors (including my lack of experience which was reasonable), they did a 180 and said I should not even apply.
  • I started a project to make us a better candidate for grants and opportunity of development. I checked in with the decision makers every step of the way and received documented nods of approval the entire way through. I got to the next step and all holy hell broke loose. When asked about what went wrong, leadership said I was not going about the project the “right way”. I showed the records to leadership how I had approached this project (meeting times to discuss, emails stating that phases were “okayed”) and this was met with silence. Anyway, the project was taken out of my hands and, according to my knowledge, is on permanent hiatus.
  • I do not feel like there is much autonomy in decision making. I also struggle a lot in the “gray area”. Some projects are treated differently and it bothers me to no end (even if it is only small things like letting the more well-known developer bend the rules a bit for less ). I’ve definitely quoted my boss on something he said about another similar project only to be told, yeah don’t say that to them. I’ve pointed to the code saying “this says we can’t do that” and I will get overridden.
  • I knew going into the public sector meant a lot of interaction with residents, grinding out site plan and permit reviews, and night meetings. But with everything else going on, I’m feeling very worn down. I’m exhausted and bored. I’m having a hard time with even putting on a fake customer service voice.
Overall, I feel stuck. I’ve been considering a job change, but the area isn’t hiring much. I want to stay in the area but urban planning is extremely location dependent. I really love where I live and do not want to move. I’ve been thinking about a career change mostly to fulfill the type of lifestyle I want (work from home, flexible hours, not a butt-in-chair type job).

Is this how most public sector jobs are? What other careers are adjacent to urban planning that might offer a more fulfilling life? Am I not going to find what I want without going into a more tech related field? How do you prevent burn out?
 

SlaveToTheGrind

Cyburbian
Messages
1,444
Points
27
Sounds like it just maybe municipality and that you need a new and fresh city. I have worked in places I did not care for and others that I did not want to leave.
 

Hink

OH....IO
Staff member
Moderator
Messages
15,838
Points
52
So my comments with your statement above really deal in two areas:

1. Your annoyance with your current workplace and how they do business.
2. Your annoyance with the profession.

It is easy to change jobs. Maybe not easy, but possible. You can find an organization that better fits your style and apply. Understand though that I would argue all public sector jobs have baggage, politics, and lots of stupid things that happen that you have no control over.

The concern I have is that you want a job that allows you to work from home, has flexible hours, and isn't a desk job. Generally, that isn't a public sector planner. You are likely much more on the private side of the planning world to find a job that allows you to travel, get out of the office, and potentially even work from home some. Generally though, our profession requires you to have face to face contact with people. Whether that is elected officials, the public, a client, a developer, or whomever. We have pushed to have most of those meetings to go Zoom, but I would say that when this is over, we are going to go right back to face to face meetings, as those are much more productive.

It sounds to me like you may want to review your skill sets and see what your ideal job would be. Maybe a software engineer or accounts payable type position, that allows you to be anywhere. Burnout is real. Burnout sucks. But you have to find ways to either fix the situation by creating outlets to do what you like (passion projects, hobbies, etc.), or find a new situation that you can handle.

Life is short. Find your happiness. With that said, a good paying job, in the field that I assume you got a degree in, is not something you should just throw away easily. Good luck.
 

Faust_Motel

Cyburbian
Messages
649
Points
27
Well, the first thing I can offer is solidarity, because I was in your position in many ways for quite a while in my own career. The stagnation, the unpredictability of higher-ups (and being thrown under the bus a time or two), the HR policy and the on-the-ground reality that didn't live up to it, the lack of opportunity to change jobs without taking a big pay cut, the hidebound scheduling and "butts in chairs = work" mentality...

As others said before me, some of this is a reality of public sector work, and if you're looking for durable work-from-home ability, you may need to look elsewhere, outside of a few very progressive cities and states.

Use those benefits and PTO- go on vacation as best you can- I have had a couple of times where I spent months hoarding PTO and making up excuses for why I couldn't get away and the finally taking a week off, only to realize that the week off was all I needed all along.

Consider regional planning or working for an MPO if such a thing is a possibility. You deal with fewer day-to-day permit/site plan issues and more long-range. Public health and planning is starting to get some traction now as well, and it's fascinating to watch the two fields come back together. Consider trying to get an informational interview with the local public health agency (they'll take the mask rules more seriously, too.)

On the mask compliance thing- are you union? If HR isn't taking enforcement seriously, I'd consider going to them and saying, "If this isn't going to be taken seriously, I'm going to take my own health seriously and work from home." It's a stretch, but might move the needle a bit.
 

Maister

Chairman of the bored
Staff member
Moderator
Messages
28,694
Points
71
Burn out is an inner state, not an external set of circumstances. I suggest looking within for answers before looking on the outside for solutions. Perhaps a move to some other locale represents a necessary condition for happiness, and is your best option, but before you jump to that conclusion, I would first recommend doing a self check on expectations and attitudes.
 

Faust_Motel

Cyburbian
Messages
649
Points
27
Burn out is an inner state, not an external set of circumstances. I suggest looking within for answers before looking on the outside for solutions. Perhaps a move to some other locale represents a necessary condition for happiness, and is your best option, but before you jump to that conclusion, I would first recommend doing a self check on expectations and attitudes.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, consider therapy. It's a huge leap for some people to get started and can feel like an admission of brokenness or failure, but it is the exact opposite. At a minimum, it will give you somebody else to talk to about problems than your partner, and they will appreciate that!
 
Messages
5
Points
0
Use those benefits and PTO- go on vacation as best you can- I have had a couple of times where I spent months hoarding PTO and making up excuses for why I couldn't get away and the finally taking a week off, only to realize that the week off was all I needed all along.

Consider regional planning or working for an MPO if such a thing is a possibility. You deal with fewer day-to-day permit/site plan issues and more long-range. Public health and planning is starting to get some traction now as well, and it's fascinating to watch the two fields come back together. Consider trying to get an informational interview with the local public health agency (they'll take the mask rules more seriously, too.)

On the mask compliance thing- are you union? If HR isn't taking enforcement seriously, I'd consider going to them and saying, "If this isn't going to be taken seriously, I'm going to take my own health seriously and work from home." It's a stretch, but might move the needle a bit.
Thank you! I’ve been really good about taking time off. But it isn’t enough. After I come back from a vacation and have been at my desk for an hour or two, it is almost like I was never away.

Regional agencies sound awesome. I will look into that. Same thing with talking with my union.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, consider therapy. It's a huge leap for some people to get started and can feel like an admission of brokenness or failure, but it is the exact opposite. At a minimum, it will give you somebody else to talk to about problems than your partner, and they will appreciate that!
I actually have an appointment to speak with my PCP about recommendations later this week!!

So my comments with your statement above really deal in two areas:

1. Your annoyance with your current workplace and how they do business.
2. Your annoyance with the profession.

It is easy to change jobs. Maybe not easy, but possible. You can find an organization that better fits your style and apply. Understand though that I would argue all public sector jobs have baggage, politics, and lots of stupid things that happen that you have no control over.

The concern I have is that you want a job that allows you to work from home, has flexible hours, and isn't a desk job. Generally, that isn't a public sector planner. You are likely much more on the private side of the planning world to find a job that allows you to travel, get out of the office, and potentially even work from home some. Generally though, our profession requires you to have face to face contact with people. Whether that is elected officials, the public, a client, a developer, or whomever. We have pushed to have most of those meetings to go Zoom, but I would say that when this is over, we are going to go right back to face to face meetings, as those are much more productive.

It sounds to me like you may want to review your skill sets and see what your ideal job would be. Maybe a software engineer or accounts payable type position, that allows you to be anywhere. Burnout is real. Burnout sucks. But you have to find ways to either fix the situation by creating outlets to do what you like (passion projects, hobbies, etc.), or find a new situation that you can handle.

Life is short. Find your happiness. With that said, a good paying job, in the field that I assume you got a degree in, is not something you should just throw away easily. Good luck.
It is hard to pursue my hobbies in the time of coronavirus. I will look into software engineering - I’ve dabbled a bit in it and think it might be a good route to go.
 

Hink

OH....IO
Staff member
Moderator
Messages
15,838
Points
52
It is hard to pursue my hobbies in the time of coronavirus. I will look into software engineering - I’ve dabbled a bit in it and think it might be a good route to go.
And that could be a lot of the burnout feeling. Coronavirus has made everything suck in terms of enjoyable life pursuits. You are not alone.

Maybe find a new hobby that works with covid? Learning coding is a great idea. I have enjoyed doing that over the years. I suck at it, but it is fun to be able to make your own websites, programs, etc.

Have you considered underwater basketweaving? ;)
 
Messages
5
Points
0
Sounds like it just maybe municipality and that you need a new and fresh city. I have worked in places I did not care for and others that I did not want to leave.
How do you screen places as a good fit or not? I feel like I had the wool pulled over my eyes at my current position a little bit.
 

estromberg

Cyburbian
Messages
252
Points
11
Thank you! I’ve been really good about taking time off. But it isn’t enough. After I come back from a vacation and have been at my desk for an hour or two, it is almost like I was never away.

Regional agencies sound awesome. I will look into that. Same thing with talking with my union.


I actually have an appointment to speak with my PCP about recommendations later this week!!


It is hard to pursue my hobbies in the time of coronavirus. I will look into software engineering - I’ve dabbled a bit in it and think it might be a good route to go.
If you've dabbled a bit in software engineering (some coding I'd assume) you might want to have a look at transitioning into a career in GIS. It potentially checks off a lot of the boxes and can be planning related, but also much more interdisciplinary. Additionally, with some coding, you have the most important skill in GIS right now as more and more it becomes about web gis, rather than paper maps.

I speak to this from some experience, I started my career using GIS as a cartographer/asst planner in a County planning department (I have a degree in Geography) and later worked as a GIS coordinator at a public water utility (doing IT for the utilitiy as well). I am now a deputy IT director and GIS specialist (the director is a GIS guy, too) for a municipality. I've been here a little over a year and I love my job here more than anywhere else I have worked.

Some of my current projects are a public crime mapping portal for the Police Department pulling data from the CAD system and a GIS based work order management system for Public Works. Past projects include web applications for residents and other department staff around zoning, garbage collection, leaf removal.
 
Messages
5
Points
0
If you've dabbled a bit in software engineering (some coding I'd assume) you might want to have a look at transitioning into a career in GIS. It potentially checks off a lot of the boxes and can be planning related, but also much more interdisciplinary. Additionally, with some coding, you have the most important skill in GIS right now as more and more it becomes about web gis, rather than paper maps.

I speak to this from some experience, I started my career using GIS as a cartographer/asst planner in a County planning department (I have a degree in Geography) and later worked as a GIS coordinator at a public water utility (doing IT for the utilitiy as well). I am now a deputy IT director and GIS specialist (the director is a GIS guy, too) for a municipality. I've been here a little over a year and I love my job here more than anywhere else I have worked.

Some of my current projects are a public crime mapping portal for the Police Department pulling data from the CAD system and a GIS based work order management system for Public Works. Past projects include web applications for residents and other department staff around zoning, garbage collection, leaf removal.
I have a good background in GIS and have played around with this idea a bit. Doing complex analysis in GIS is fun, but making the same types of maps over and over and over again is not.

I guess I’m worried about getting pigeon-holed into doing maps where choosing the colors is the most interesting part. I think I’m feeling overly cautious about jumping ship into another field from planning. The devil you know...
 

HomerJ

Cyburbian
Messages
1,088
Points
16
Agree with all the other comments here, and just about every public sector/urban planning job is going to come with it's unique headaches. It does sound like you have a particularly bad set of circumstances between how the agency is handling COVID and overall problems with leadership, but I also agree with Hink that wanting the perks/work from home flexibility is typically more of an exception than norm in the public sector (although I do still hang on to some optimism that may start to slowly change due to how positively most people have responded to remote work). A question that might be worth considering, would you be willing to tolerate the usual issues that come with a public sector job if it also came with more supportive leadership? That might be a more realistic expectation if there are other agencies nearby you can look into.
 

DVD

Cyburbian
Messages
14,948
Points
51
It's hard to say how to read a company or city. I worked one city that was great. Until the layoffs started and it became a stab in the back nightmare of a place. I worked for a county that was okay for the first few months and then we got new commissioners. When you read stories about horrible things happening and wonder how that happens anywhere? That was my county to the point I was passed up for promotion because I didn't golf with the commissioner like his obviously unqualified buddy did. We all have horror stories.

Figuring out if it's good or bad sometimes takes off the wall research. Go talk to some city employees and see what they think about the city manager, council influence, etc. Read old papers to see what dirty laundry the press has been digging up. Look over their budget to see if they have been increasing or decreasing staff. Has there been a lot of turnover? Having contacts with private sector planners or through APA state chapters is a great way to find good and bad work places. We have a city in out state that is definitely black listed.

Things I've seen in interviews that gave me bad vibes:
1. The interviewers seemed more nervous than me.
2. I couldn't put my finger on it, but I was just getting weird vibes. Like run away vibes.
3. The interviewers seemed over anxious. Made me feel I was to good for the job. Turned out they had some major problems in the past.
4. The interviewers had overly specific questions. In other words they had a problem with X and you should know you'll be dealing with it.
5. They avoid questions like what's the deal with the latest debacle I've been hearing about.
6. They start wanting specific skill sets. Not always bad, but things like big project examples tells me you have no back up to do the big projects.

Also consider taking a less responsible job. For someone like me who will never "love" his work I have a job as a senior planner. I don't have to deal with elected officials or to many problems. There is always the WTF jobs where a decision is made for me, but I didn't make it so no problem to me. I just work my time in a place that isn't too bad (I still complain though). I'm paid well enough and I try to do things that relax me. Sometimes it's not bad being the guy who sweeps the floor as long as it pays the bills.
 

paiste13

Cyburbian
Messages
236
Points
9
I had some of these issues years ago and I went into the private sector. Then after a few years I realized I hated throwing away my public-policy skill so developers could make more money on cul-de-sac developments. So I went back to a city. And now I'm unhappy. I realized the unhappiness is within me. I have a ton of expectation on how to use my limited time on this earth and paper-pushing and making councils happy isn't it. Our profession has some serious hurdles in it that we like to ignore. Anyway, rant over -but could you use your skills with a consulting company while you try to look for more entrepreneurial things? I could work for hours on things I like but get bored after 5 minutes of some site plan at work, counting parking spots and sign square footage.
 
Messages
5
Points
0
I had some of these issues years ago and I went into the private sector. Then after a few years I realized I hated throwing away my public-policy skill so developers could make more money on cul-de-sac developments. So I went back to a city. And now I'm unhappy. I realized the unhappiness is within me. I have a ton of expectation on how to use my limited time on this earth and paper-pushing and making councils happy isn't it. Our profession has some serious hurdles in it that we like to ignore. Anyway, rant over -but could you use your skills with a consulting company while you try to look for more entrepreneurial things? I could work for hours on things I like but get bored after 5 minutes of some site plan at work, counting parking spots and sign square footage.
Thanks for the response. It is comforting to know I’m not entirely alone in all this. Do I just reach out to various consulting firms? I don’t see many of them hiring at this time.

It's hard to say how to read a company or city. I worked one city that was great. Until the layoffs started and it became a stab in the back nightmare of a place. I worked for a county that was okay for the first few months and then we got new commissioners. When you read stories about horrible things happening and wonder how that happens anywhere? That was my county to the point I was passed up for promotion because I didn't golf with the commissioner like his obviously unqualified buddy did. We all have horror stories.

Figuring out if it's good or bad sometimes takes off the wall research. Go talk to some city employees and see what they think about the city manager, council influence, etc. Read old papers to see what dirty laundry the press has been digging up. Look over their budget to see if they have been increasing or decreasing staff. Has there been a lot of turnover? Having contacts with private sector planners or through APA state chapters is a great way to find good and bad work places. We have a city in out state that is definitely black listed.

Things I've seen in interviews that gave me bad vibes:
1. The interviewers seemed more nervous than me.
2. I couldn't put my finger on it, but I was just getting weird vibes. Like run away vibes.
3. The interviewers seemed over anxious. Made me feel I was to good for the job. Turned out they had some major problems in the past.
4. The interviewers had overly specific questions. In other words they had a problem with X and you should know you'll be dealing with it.
5. They avoid questions like what's the deal with the latest debacle I've been hearing about.
6. They start wanting specific skill sets. Not always bad, but things like big project examples tells me you have no back up to do the big projects.

Also consider taking a less responsible job. For someone like me who will never "love" his work I have a job as a senior planner. I don't have to deal with elected officials or to many problems. There is always the WTF jobs where a decision is made for me, but I didn't make it so no problem to me. I just work my time in a place that isn't too bad (I still complain though). I'm paid well enough and I try to do things that relax me. Sometimes it's not bad being the guy who sweeps the floor as long as it pays the bills.
Thank you for taking the time to write this response! This is also very comforting. Maybe I should just accept my position and emotionally detach completely from the job. Feels a bit demoralizing though and I’m not sure how to separate my self worth from my career. I have fulfilling hobbies (albeit on pause for the time being) and I love my life outside of my job.

Agree with all the other comments here, and just about every public sector/urban planning job is going to come with it's unique headaches. It does sound like you have a particularly bad set of circumstances between how the agency is handling COVID and overall problems with leadership, but I also agree with Hink that wanting the perks/work from home flexibility is typically more of an exception than norm in the public sector (although I do still hang on to some optimism that may start to slowly change due to how positively most people have responded to remote work). A question that might be worth considering, would you be willing to tolerate the usual issues that come with a public sector job if it also came with more supportive leadership? That might be a more realistic expectation if there are other agencies nearby you can look into.
I would love to work for a great leader and mentor. I am not finding that at my current job.
 

glutton

Cyburbian
Messages
473
Points
12
I'm in the same age range as you, and have worked in both public and private sectors. A lot of what you describe is common across public sector and the planning profession in general. Something that no one ever told me about being a public sector planner was how much of the role was pure customer service. I've had the same feelings of boredom/exhaustion/burnout before, and all I can say is it gets better once you lower your expectations to be honest. I used to have this feeling that I had to accomplish all of my career goals before 30 or my life would be a disappointment. Guess what, I'm now in the 30 club and I stopped caring so hard. Find a city you love and makes you happy. Get settled, find a partner, embrace the more chill 30 life. Or, alternatively, start looking into new opportunities and challenges in a different city (for next year, post Covid - for now keep the job you have since this year is going to be tough economically). Maybe a change of scenery is what you need?
 

DVD

Cyburbian
Messages
14,948
Points
51
Sometimes you have to enjoy other parts of life and the job becomes just a thing you have to do. I did that for 6 years until I found a city I like in a place I like. I still put up with some WTF moments, but I just shrug it off as not my problem. I just don't take much personally, not everyone can do that. You'll just have to figure out if it's the career or the workplace. Every career and every workplace will have its pros and cons. Good luck, and when in doubt talk to people.
 

MacheteJames

Cyburbian
Messages
974
Points
21
OP sounds like they'd be happier working at a large planning agency at a Tier I city (like a Chicago/NYC/L.A.). That'll get you away from the "my cat is stuck in a tree" style customer service minutiae that goes hand in hand with planning for smaller cities. I left the former environment for the latter for family/lifestyle reasons and can say without question that we did more of the kind of planning that you go to school for at a big agency than at a smaller one. Local government is also inherently conservative as it relates to the structure of the work environment and I predict that it'll be among the last of sectors to adopt the shift to at least partial WFH for staff.

Another option for you could be a planning-adjacent nonprofit advocacy organization - that could keep you involved in the planning sphere while excising the worst aspects of the work for you. Of course, the nonprofit world has its own separate set of headaches and has been slammed on the revenue side by the pandemic.

As an aside, having been in all manner of planning environments in my 15 year career, I can say confidently that the process of public engagement at every scale is broken, dysfunctional, and demoralizing far more often than it should be, and you may be feeling some of that.
 

Salmissra

Cyburbian
Messages
6,016
Points
32
I don't really have much to add that's different than DVD's experiences. I'm in it until retirement, and I've stepped back from the director track and am much happier with a less stressful path.

I used to think it was the job's requirement to keep me interested and keep me from being bored with my 8-whenever the public meeting is over workload. When I grew bored, I left for "greener pastures". I eventually figured out that there are things I like about public sector, current planning work, and there are things I hate. For a while, I had a job that was heavy on the good, light on the bad, and I stayed there until new management drove off the 6 people with the most longevity/seniority within 6 months (myself included).

I'm now with a regional planning agency, with an emphasis on some non-planning areas that are a bit of a stretch to me. But the benefits far outweigh the job deficiencies. Now - if I could just get a better boss . . .
 
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