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By Bryan • personal, urban planning • 8 Dec 2010

entry-levelI’ve been having discussions with a number of my colleagues from planning school regarding the shitty job situation the majority of us seem to find ourselves in.  The discussions range from job search strategies, to networking to water-cooler tips to life as an unskilled worker to “wtf am I going to do when my loans are due?”

However, I’ve noticed two reoccurring themes.  First, that we are all (at the same time) under-qualified, over-qualified and severely lacking in the appropriate experience for the planning profession.  Second, the nebulous nature of the ‘entry-level’ planning position.  Both I find particularly frustrating given that Canadian Institute of Planners is trying so dreadfully hard to be taken seriously as a professional organization.  During the student consultations component of SURP’s certification process last year, the CIP really pushed on us their goal of legitimizing the planning profession along the lines of Law and Engineering.  Despite their good intentions they appeared to be deeply mired regarding planning semantics (the age old “what is planning?” b.s) rather than actually determining how to properly link planning education with the professional world and exclusivize the job (the way engineers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, foresters seem to be able to do).

When I was an undergrad I was seriously considering becoming an Registered Professional Forester…up to the point that I was a student member of the ABFP.  Like planning, there are different routes to becoming an RPF all requiring a certain amount of logged working hours and an examination before being conferred full membership.  During this process  you were referred to as an F.I.T. (forester-in-training) similar to planning’s ‘candidate’.  Doesn’t seem to be a huge difference, however when I was looking into becoming an RPF, I would routinely see advertised positions specifically targeting F.I.T’s.  This is clear evidence that the forestry profession recognizes the need for workplace training and encourages firms and government agencies to create real entry-level positions that foster learning and growth for the next generation of foresters.  I’m told that engineering operates in a similar fashion.

Aside from a half-assed mentorship program, planning doesn’t seem to have anything like this.  Once you finish your degree, you are essentially on your own faced with an absolutely bizarre array of positions that require an equally bizarre range of qualifications.  Hence the over/under qualified individual.

Going off my 8-plus months of job searching I’ve determined that planning doesn’t have entry-level jobs that are suitable for  graduate-level education candidates.  It leaves me scratching me head because the CIP wants to move in the direction where a master’s degree becomes the minimum qualification to becoming a planner (one could possibly argue that it already is). I’ve observed three positions that probably could be classified as entry-level, yet don’t appear to be appropriate for an entry-level education.

Planning Assistant – Not a terribly common position, but one does see the odd one advertised.  This is possibly the absolute lowest position in a planning office (unless they are a wealthy department that hires interns).  This positions is so low that 9/10 times it only requires a grade 12 education.  They might ask for a diploma in planning.  The below is a partial description from a job posted a few months ago.

Front counter interaction answering public inquiries and correspondence related to departmental functions such as zoning or subdivision matters; including, but not limited to, maintaining zoning maps, land use maps, index files, and other graphs, charts and documents, inputs data into an application tracking system, confirms zoning and OCP land use designations on lots, provides other departments and the public with information regarding lot sizes, property location house numbers and legal descriptions of lots.

The Planning Assistant I is required to review development applications for completeness and compliance with Regional District bylaws, policies and procedures before further review by other staff and maintains details of applications on a computer terminal. Work also involves copying, collating, scanning, drafting presentation material, informational pamphlets, advertisements, and transcribing minutes of meetings, carrying out title searches and, performing drafting and mapping assignments as needed.

If one is coming out of a graduate-level planning program, one is heavily over-qualified for this position and HR may be looking for someone with secretarial experience.

Planning Technician  – A rather commonly advertised position, the techies tend to deal with the computer side of planning.  Maps, models, diagrams, webGIS, CAD, field work, data entry, admin work similar to the Planning Assistant.  In bigger municipalities the work might involve more heavy GIS programming work.  Planning Techs are usually the product of Applied Urban Planning programs such as the one at Langara College.  They also have their own professional association.

Conducts on-site inspections for compliance with approved Development Permits, including building form, parking, landscaping and other items as required. Performs other related duties as assigned by the Manager of Planning and Director of Development Services. Responds to inquiries from the public, the development community and staff, with a high degree of accuracy and accountability, respecting land use  regulations and application processing. Processes and coordinates intake of development applications. Compiles data and development application status reports. Provides site maps and graphics for inclusion in reports using the current GIS system.  Obtains Certificates of Title from BC Online computer system. Prepares draft Preliminary Layout Approvals for the Approving Officer. Responds to legal “comfort letters” from the Development Services Department.

It’s not uncommon to find planners doing tech jobs (I wouldn’t mind it) but graduate GIS/CAD training could be considered to general and rudimentary.  On the other hand, a planner could also be considered too educationally over-qualified.

Planner I – Initially, the position of Planner I seems like the most appropriate for the education of a graduate-level planning program.  Usually requires a bachelor and increasingly a masters in urban planning specifically (some still accept other degree level qualifications).  However, closer examination of most Planner I positions I’ve encountered reveals a strong experience bias against those coming straight out of planning school.  It’s common to see 5+ year requirements (but I’ve seen 2).  Planner I is the real McCoy and often carries considerable work autonomy and responsibilities so it is hardly surprising that they want an individual who knows what they are doing and can work without direction.

Advise the Director of Development Services and staff on planning and related matters. Act of Approving Officer for the Town.  This requires the review and approval of subdivision applications for the Town.  This includes the following: reviewing the application to ensure it is complete; undertaking a site analysis; where necessary, meet with applicant to address any ongoing issues with respect to subdivision application; ensuring completion of internal and external notifications for review and comment; create a statement of projected costs including off-site services, CRD give preliminary approval, and when necessary with conditions;  and give final approval. Prepare, amend and enforce bylaws associated with the Official Community Plan, Land Use and other related bylaws. In consultation with the Director of Development Services, prepare planning studies. Prepare, co-ordinate and/or process applications for  Official Community Plan and Zoning bylaw amendments for submission to the Director of Development Services.

To be honest, I do not believe I’m qualified for any of that.

It’s important to also stress that the job descriptions vary so widely.  I’ve seen Planner I jobs that are more like Planning Assistant and Tech jobs that are more like IT programmer.

I would argue that ideally, an appropriate entry-level position for someone coming out of planning school (by planning school, I generally mean the graduate kind) would be a combination of all three job descriptions placed under the moniker of P.I.T (planner-in-training).  “Entry-Level” needs to be clarified and defined.  Emphasis placed on training, learning and collaboration with a supervising RPP.  A PIT would then work toward the position of Planner I within a specified time period, logging hours and then writing an exam.  Such positions would cater specifically to graduates, offer compensation and a title  that would discourage more experienced planners from taking said jobs and foster a more concurrent profession.

How this would be implemented?  No idea.  To be honest, I’m not sure firms and municipalities would be down with something that structured and out of their control.  I think they favour the present situation where they can push ‘planners’ where they need them and write vague job descriptions that troll in hundreds of people from a variety of professions.  However, I believe that if the CIP wants to be taken seriously as a profession they need to put their foot down and create a proper career flow that jives with the correct training, because right now I feel like a graduate education in planning is completely out of sync with the job market.

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5 Responses

  1. Paul Yeoman

    This is very well argued, Bryan, and I couldn’t agree more. I’ve found the same issues looking ahead to where I might end up in April and it doesn’t fill me with a lot of hope. It seems once you get in the system, you’re good to go — like you said, it’s gaining access that’s tough. When I first was accepted to the program, I honestly thought that we’d be rolling into jobs right out of SURP. Pretty naive.

    Would you be able to transfer this into a letter and send it to Marni Capp and Sue Cummings? I’d greatly appreciate that.

  2. Sarah R

    Bryan, I agree! I’ve been trying to explain the under/over qualified mismatch, and you’ve laid it out so clearly, I think I’ll just start directing people to this post.

    I do think consulting is one area that may prefer a degree… but there’s relatively few consulting companies in BC and even fewer that are growing in a way that requires entry-level recruitment.

  3. Adam

    The Canadian entry-level planner regime is definitely designed to privilege those who already have jobs over those who don’t. I’ve seen ads for jobs in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand for Graduate Planners right out of school.

  4. Bryan

    Thanks for the props. Paul, I’m planning on cleaning up the entry, making it a bit more formal then sending it off to OPPI and PIBC (others have mentioned I should do that as well). Bita noted that it might be something that could be forwarded through the student reps. Who is the SURP rep this year?

    I too was rather naive regarding the job situation when I finished in May. While the economy has a role to play in the low job opportunities, I’m not expecting boom times in the near future. At the moment we seem to be stagnating at best.

    Sarah, yeah, I agree regarding the consulting companies. Most of the firms in central/northern BC are largely engineering/architectural in focus. They don’t seem to get enough planning work to justify a large planning staff. They seem to overlap a lot of the work with their engineers and architects.

    I’ve seen some stuff in Alberta though. Recently I put in an application with TransAlta for “right of way planner”. All things considered it is more entry than most things I’ve seen posted…working with transmission lines and property owners. That kind of stuff. I’ve seen site acquisition jobs as well with companies like Telus.

    Adam…any thoughts on why grad support seems to be better in the UK, NZ and Auz?

  5. Unrelated….Paul, you wrote the 1000th comment to this site since 2003.

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