Can I Work Part-Time as a Planner?

Can a planner find professionally rewarding work in a part-time position?

There are many reasons for seeking part-time planning employment, including family responsibilities or having a dream that requires time for writing, auditioning, or writing the next great computer app.

Throughout my career, I sensed that full-time (and more than full-time) work was required to advance as a professional planner. But times are changing. This post provides tips for those seeking part-time planning.

Balancing Work and Family Responsibilities

Before seeking part-time work, make sure you are not overlooking full-time job opportunities that are compatible with other obligations. Such a job may be limited to 40 hours per week or less, provide "comp" time, and offer work-at-home options that reduce commuting. Full-time work, of course, provides money for child care, enrichment, better housing, and other personal services that may compensate for greater time at work.

Let's assume that you just don't have 40 hours per week of work. The emergence of the gig economy gives legitimacy to a career in which a planner assembles a portfolio of work that is flexible and scalable. The flexibility benefits, of course, come with uncertainty and the lack of traditional benefits.

There is a distinction between a permanent part-time position and contingent or gig-type planning employment. The availability of permanent part-time and contingent employment in planning varies across sectors and specializations. Some public agencies, for example, have permanent part-time positions but they tend to be lower-level administrative positions. Contingent work, on the other hand, requires a network that will bring in new projects and clients.

Seek Part-time or On-call Planning Opportunities

One opportunity is to obtain a part-time or contingent placement in a public agency through a consulting firm that staffs local government.

My Cal Poly Pomona colleague Rick Zimmer works on staffing appointments for MIG, Inc. He notes that most part-timers are parents with children who have at least several years of experience and senior-level planners who have retired from a public agency job. It may be hard to find part-time work for entry-level positions because of needed training and oversight.

Consultants may also have "on-call" contracts through which cities seek entitlement processing assistance on a project-by-project basis. This may require the planner to apply to an on-call list and have the ability to be hired as a consultant (see Should I Start a Planning Consulting Firm?). With on-call entitlement processing work, however, there may be weeks when little needs to be done and thus there are no billable hours.

Another on-call example is grant writing for cities and nonprofit organizations. In these cases, some of the work is done at the organization's office, such as meetings with staff and/or applicants, but there is flexibility about the location of other aspects of the work.

Some consulting firms may also employ part-time planners. The greatest selling point for this work can be a specific technical skill (e.g., GIS, design, environmental analysis, or entitlement processing, or expertise in special projects such as blight studies, website design, or specific plans). Nonprofit organizations may similarly need a person for a specific task.

Rick Zimmer also notes that part-time work is well-suited to advanced planning projects, which are longer-range and provide steadier hours. The part-time planner can take a piece of a larger project that can be completed independently.

A successful part-time career requires that the planner pays attention to the next few assignments, lest there be a gap. Because part-time planners are not in the office every day, they should take steps to be visible to their supervisors by attending staff meetings, keeping in touch, and being engaged in the profession.

Adapt to Workforce Changes

Work/life balance is a priority for recent planning school graduates. In addition, these young planners have experienced the flexibility of the gig economy. Some talented young planners may not want a full-time permanent position early in their careers. Part-time and contingent work, then, is an important tool for both planners and managers in this new environment.

For managers, having part-time and contingent employees may require more supervision and paperwork. Taken too far, a planning department with a "revolving door" of short-term employees may suffer in terms of teamwork, institutional memory, and quality control. Yet the upside can be substantial — attracting a talented workforce that provides specialized skills not available in a small department, and gaining an ability to respond to budget fluctuations.

If there is a stigma to part-time and contingent work, we should seek to decrease it in hiring practices. Providing a range of ways of doing planning work seems to be consistent with broader economic trends and provides access to the planning profession for those who cannot — or do not wish to — work full-time.

Thank you to my Cal Poly Pomona colleague Rick Zimmer for ideas for this piece.

This blog series is amplified in Richard Willson's book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career. The book includes perspectives, tools, advice, and personal anecdotes. It is available now at Routledge, Amazon, and most retailers.

Top image: Thinkstock photo.

About the Author
Richard Willson, FAICP, is a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona. He has also served as department chair, interim dean, and independent planning consultant. Willson's research addresses planning practice and parking policy.

August 15, 2017

By Richard Willson, FAICP