We feel you are not quite the right fit for us at this time–REVISED

By Bryan • personal, urban planning • 15 Dec 2010

A revised entry, with much appreciated input from my SURP friends.  Modified slightly from what will be sent to the relevant planning associations.

I spent much of November 2010 discussing with a number of my planning school colleagues the miserable job situation many of us have been dealing with for most of 2010. The discussions ranged from job search strategies, to networking opportunities, water-cooler banter, life as chronically under-employed and the difficulties in meeting student loan repayment schedules. One item was particularly clear. We all agreed that while there appears to be a steady and relatively decent number of what appears to be entry-level planning positions advertised, it is uncommon for recently graduated planners to be hired for these positions. Interviews are also rare.  Unofficial and ad-hoc surveys among ourselves suggest that at least half of the SURP class of of 2010 have yet to secure planning related work.

I have been in the job market since April 2010 and I am still waiting to receive an invitation to a job interview or constructive feedback regarding any of the 45+ planning positions I have applied for. I have evolved my cover letter, expanded my search to include a wide geographic area, approached private firms and crown corporations, and inquired about internships and volunteer opportunities. I have found little success. I have rationally come to the conclusion that my job situation, as well as my colleagues, may not be entirely our own fault. We all are taking the correct steps in order to market ourselves properly, yet have yet to receive any solid planning work opportunities that reflect our educational backgrounds. Many, myself included, are considering leaving the planning profession, not because we want to, but because we have to. Something is missing in the equation.

Two strong themes emerged during our discussions: the nebulous and ambiguous nature of the entry-level planning positions being advertised, and that recent graduate-level students are either strongly over-qualified or strongly under-qualified for planning positions that appear to be entry-level. The over/under qualified situation is particularly troubling. During my final year at SURP, the program was in the process of being accredited by the CIP. When the accreditors consulted the students regarding the program they briefly discussed the desire of planning to become a more exclusive profession, similar to law, engineering and teaching. Part of this plan emphasized the importance of graduate level education to the planning field and the wish that this requirement form the minimum foundation of an educated planner.

While I feel that this goal is laudable and I support the emphasis on advanced education as a corner stone of the planning profession, I believe that there is presently a massive gap between a graduate-level education and expectations of entry-level planning work. This is the first theme emerging. Despite a bias toward graduate-level education in the planning profession, there is a distinct lack of appropriate entry-level positions that address the skills acquired in planning school.

I have identified three common so-called ‘entry-level’ job titles available to planners who have completed a graduate-level planning program. For each I have included a brief summary of the job (intended to be general) and an excerpt from a recently advertised position.

Planning Assistant – Not a commonly advertised position, but does appear on the job boards from time to time.  It could be argued that the planning assistant is lowest position in a planning office, next to student interns. Often this position only requires a grade 12 education, although sometimes a planning or administrative diploma is recommended. Most planning assistant jobs appear to be secretarial and administrative in nature, offering clerical support to planners and front-desk support to clients.

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.

While planning assistants provide an essential service to many planning departments, it is clear that a graduate-level planning education considerably exceeds the job description. In many cases the support-like nature of the job may push human resources toward acquiring individuals with strong administrative and secretarial work experience.

Planning Technician – A rather commonly advertised position, planning technicians are involved in the technical and computer-based aspects of planning.  Duties often include map creation, models, diagrams, webGIS, AutoCAD, field work, data entry, and administrative work similar to the planning assistant.  In bigger municipalities and firms the responsibilities might involve more heavy GIS programming.  Planning technicians are often the product of applied urban planning programs such as the one at Langara College in Vancouver. Planning technicians also have their own professional organization separate from planners.

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 is not uncommon to find planners holding planning technician positions, however a graduate-level planning education could be considered too general in regards to the heavy technical nature of the position. Often graduate planning programs only provide basic, introductory instruction in GIS, AutoCAD and database management. The professionalized nature of planning technical work also acts as a barrier to many graduate trained planners as there could be a bias toward hiring proper planning technicians over moonlighting planners who are merely passing through on their way to a more appropriate planning position.

Planner I – On initial inspection, the position of planner I is the most suitable for the education received from a graduate-level planning program.  Such positions usually require a bachelor degree (not necessarily in urban planning) as a minimum education requirement, although many larger municipalities and firms now require a master’s degree. A key component of the planner I position is the strong emphasis placed on experience. It is very common to see 5+ years of planning experiences as a minimum requirement for consideration. This is completely understandable as these positions generally carry significant responsibilities and considerable work autonomy.

Advise the Director of Development Services and staff on planning and related matters. Act as 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. 

After reviewing this job description it is fairly obvious to most recent graduates that they are not remotely qualified for the position of planner I. They may have some theoretical understanding of the requirements and possibly some light experience gained from a summer internship, but the experiential bias is clear.

It is important to stress that the job descriptions vary widely. I have seen Planner I jobs that read like a planning assistant position and planning technician descriptions that look more like IT programming. The private sector may also offer more specific entry-level positions, yet I have noticed that such positions are not what I would consider common.

Planning graduates, in 2010, are chronically under/over qualified in relation to the available planning jobs. Upon graduating from planning school, former students now find themselves with a skill set that is not appropriate and a level of experience that is not high enough to satisfy the requirements of most planner I positions. In many competitions we are fighting for entry-level jobs against people with 10+ years of experience.

I, along with others, feel that there is little being done by the universities, the profession and the planning industry to address this substantial gap.

When I was a geography undergraduate at the University of Victoria, I seriously considered becoming registered professional forester, up to the point that I was a student member of the Association of British Columbia Forest Practitioners. Similar to becoming an RPP, there are several routes to becoming an RPF, all requiring a certain amount of logged hours working under an RPF and an examination before being conferred full membership. During this process, one holds the title of F.I.T (forester-in-training) a designation somewhat similar to planning’s ‘candidate’. The huge difference however, is that F.I.T is more than just a title, it is job description. I would routinely see positions advertised with forestry firms and government organizations that specifically catered to skill set of an F.I.T. The forestry profession has recognized the importance of practical workplace training, the limitations of a university education and responded in kind with a progressive career track. The F.I.T designation fosters the creation of appropriate job descriptions and the notion of nurturing new graduates into forest professionals. I have been told that career progression and training in engineering operates in similar, if not more structured fashion.

I don’t see anything like this in planning. The nearest program I’ve seen that provides a properly tapered career path is the Government of Alberta’s land use planner internship program. However it is a very small program, situated exclusively in Alberta, open to non-planners and apparently extremely competitive.

In many cases, new planners are dropped in the abyss after graduation. On their own they face an astonishingly bizarre array of positions that require and equally bizarre range of qualifications. Often they are competing against planners with 10+ years of experience. Many of us were accepted into graduate school based on our diverse backgrounds, of which many are non-planning related. I hail from a forestry and education background and have extensive international experience. We were always told that this diversity was a strength of planning and that it reinforced the inter-disciplinary vision of the profession. I have since learned that the planning job market has little interest in my background, aside from the notion that I am the bearer of insignificant planning working experience.

I would argue that ideally, an appropriate entry-level position for an individual exiting planning school would be a combination of all three previously described ‘entry-level’ positions placed under the moniker of P.I.T (planner-in-training).  A P.I.T would then work toward the position of Planner I under the supervision of an RPP, within a specified time period, logging hours and then writing an exam.  Such positions would cater specifically to graduates by offering job description, compensation package and the official title of P.I.T that would help discourage experienced planners from monopolizing available jobs. Such a career progression may also assist in exclusivising the profession.

I’m writing to inquire whether the planning profession is aware of this problem. If they are, what is being done about it? Is anything being done about it? What can the unemployed do to help? How this would be implemented? What would be the responsibilities of the profession, the universities and the industry?  I have no idea. I never learned how to navigate bureaucracy at grad school.

I feel that this situation goes beyond a mere recession and the too-often employed “it’s the economy, stupid!” rationale. More planners are produced by planning schools every year and municipalities and firms appear to be less interested in employing us. Furthermore, if the planning profession is indeed fully invested in developing as a more restricted, elite profession then it is in its own interest to offer a more expanded role in supporting young planners into the work place. Such a role may involve advocating industry and government to create properly designed entry-level positions for aspiring planners and in conjunction with these entities, developing a planner-in-training program. If industry and municipalities significantly prefer new planners with substantial related working experience, then perhaps there is a role for universities in aligning student recruitment to reflect these values instead of continuing with the practice of accepting students from many disciplines and backgrounds. While I agree with this practice principle, I’ve discovered that these recruitment practices are not congruent with what the working world presently requires of a new professional. A graduate school rejection based on the incompatibility of my past experiences with the realities of the planning profession may have required me to pursue more realistic options rather than invest tens of thousands of dollars and two years of my life into a profession that offers little entry-level job prospects.

Synchronization between profession and training is paramount and, I stress again, I strongly believe that a planning-in-training process can hugely beneficial in addressing this fissure. Planning for the future must necessarily involve a greater investment in that future – the young men and women who will form the backbone of the profession for the next fifty years. A generation of new planners is floundering and sinking fast and we require help.

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4 Responses

  1. Amanda S

    Very well done Bryan. Let me know how it goes! I’m very interested to see what CIP/OPPI comes up with.

    -A

  2. Bryan

    Thanks. Hopefully I’ll get some feedback from the planning orgs.

  3. Bob Lehman

    Bryan did you send this to CIP? If so to who and what response did you get.

    Bob Lehman

  4. Bryan

    Hey Bob,

    No, I didn’t send it, although I’m told someone else forwarded to CIP. Never heard anything though.

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