Planning Career GPS

Listen, Network, Grow

Learn more about the trends that shape the profession, skills to develop, and tips for strategic career management. APA offers resources to help you advance your career and employability advice from industry professionals.

What I Wish I Had Known

Melanie Wilson

Melanie Wilson gives her advice on an important skill that she learned on the job. Watch the video, then read more from Wilson on what she wishes was taught in planning school.

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What should planning schools teach that they don’t — and why should they?

Critical thinking, in regard to going through a logical process. The second most important is finance and the cost of plans. Together it’s about being able to create realistic plans that can be implemented from a practical and financial standpoint. You need to learn to be pithy and clear in your ideas. Planners will do well if they can solve problems individually, not only solve to consensus. You’re not going to always get consensus, you need to be able to hold a point of view that is well grounded in the process.

Every planner should take an acting class or improv. It’s important to learn how to project your voice and how to maintain composure. Presentation skills are key acting takes it a step farther. When acting it’s about portraying your confidence and the ability to tell a story. A story that frames issues that a layperson can understand. Acting skills will help you to present yourself unwavering in the face of the public.

When you were in school what class did you take that has stuck with you?

Land Use, construction management and another one on theory from Dr. Bill Harris. His commitment to building our urban core cities, citizen empowerment and professional ethics has stayed with me. At the end of the day you make decisions that will help you sleep at night; stick to your principles.

What do you think is the skill that planners best learn on the job? Or another way to put it, Is there one class that can’t prepare you for the reality of the work?

Time management, young planners don’t realize how overwhelming public requests can be and pressure that may be exerted on an issue can be engaging and engrossing but the planner needs to keep a fair view, be a good steward in the long run, rather than being persuaded.

It comes down to negotiations — you are creating agreements. Be mindful of the innovative ways to get to yes. As a leader, you need to ask a series of questions to get to the critical steps. Stay focused, tune out distractions, keep the big picture in mind, rather than thinking it needs to be solved right away. A good rule of thumb is to create a technical memo and a strategy on how to approach the problem in advance of a meeting. Have you homed in on the issue? That is the best preparation.

Results Matter

Ray Chiaramonte, FAICP

Looking back on a long career in planning, Ray Chiaramonte, FAICP, reflects on the importance of listening to clients to understand their needs when trying to move your agenda forward.

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Projects may take longer than anticipated and, as a leader, it's vital to stay involved. If you are not on the right path toward success it may be time to adjust what you are thinking and figure out how to revise plans and move forward.

Sometimes a planner must put aside what they want to happen for what the larger community will readily accept and support. That is often a very hard thing to do, but often times compromise is the only way a project moves forward.

I wish that I had been more strategic and less emotional about my beliefs. Looking back, a more productive path is about compromise and the willingness to listen to constituents. Setting modest goals to begin, you'll discover that plans are farther along when incremental change is pursued.

I was a hare when I was young, now I am a turtle. Remember: In the long run, the turtle wins.

The timeless skills of a planner are grounded in understanding the assets of the community you're working in and whether those assets are being engaged to move things forward.

Often communities do not really understand what makes them special, and it goes against the grain to be something else. Reinvention seldom succeeds. What succeeds is figuring out what makes your community special and figuring out how to strengthen those attributes.

Working from local strengths helps bring the area to realize its unique potential. This sounds a lot easier than it is. It takes deep understanding and constant monitoring of where things are going in the fast-changing world we live in.

Lifelong Learning

Price Armstrong, AICP

Continuing your education will increase your marketability and improve your career satisfaction. During the 2017 National Planning Conference, we stopped to chat with Price Armstrong about what he does to keep his skills sharp and enhance his career options.

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Price Armstrong is senior transit operations analyst at Pioneer Valley Transit Authority in Springfield, Massachusetts. He says lifelong learning means taking time to learn new computer programs and skills (GIS, Excel, R Statistical Software, Adobe Suite, Microsoft Office, etc.), making the effort to attend conferences that interest you, and engaging with co-workers who have skills that you would like to aquire.

Coursera and EdX have a substantial catalog that Armstrong has used. Users are free to audit courses on both those sites, and Armstrong has audited courses in R Statistical Software, Python, and GIS).

Planners getting ready to graduate should really focus on building technical skills and think about what value they could bring to an organization. Don't be afraid to make the hard sell for why you would be a great employee. Learn to network and do it often; the people you chat with at a conference reception could very well be the people interviewing you at some point.

Tips for Working with a Recruiter

Frank DeSafey

Did you know that an estimated 70 percent of open jobs are not posted? Using a recruiter in your employment search can help you tap into the hidden job market.

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Frank DeSafey is the founder/principal of Sequence Staffing, an APA Knowledge Partner. As one of the nation's leading recruiters for planners of all types, his firm is also known for expertise in construction, engineering, and architecture.

Because one of the topics APA members often inquire about is working with recruiters, we caught DeSafey between speaking sessions at the 2016 National Planning Conference and sat him down to find out more about working with a recruiter. In the video above, DeSafey talks about how to reach out to a recruiter, provides tips for planners on what to do and what not do when interacting with a recruiter, and offers insights into how a recruiter can help you find a job in today's marketplace.

Career Benefits of Volunteering

Cynthia Bowen, FAICP

President of the American Planning Association

Volunteering is a great way to build skills and can make you a stronger candidate for the job. In this video Cynthia Bowen lists the many benefits and skill development opportunities gained through volunteering. It doesn't matter where you are to begin a leadership journey, volunteering can start when you're a student and as you continue on in your professional development.

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While leaders are the ones who move the organization forward, you can start volunteering at any stage of your career, it's a progression that will always yield benefits.

Discover your hidden talents, develop your capabilities, move your career forward through people and projects. Your company will benefit too, as you will develop a network of experts. Think of volunteering as a professional development boot camp. Make an investment in your career and get involved where you are right now.

Find an APA Chapter and ask how you can help. APA Divisions cover planning specialty and interest areas. They offer professional development and training; the perfect place to connect with those who share your specific planning passions and provide the opportunity for leadership.

There are many ways of volunteering at APA. Work on committees and task forces play an important part in advancing the planning movement and enhancing the credibility of the profession through your time and talent. Volunteer and get involved.

Developing Career Resilience

Mike Jelen, PE

Resilience is a familiar word to planners. They're well aware of the threats and potential disaster hovering around the best of plans. Get video advice from someone who has the career longevity and experience across sectors to know about resilient careers.

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Do you think about your career that way? Career mobility isn't always a choice and, as the adage says, you can't change what happens to you, only your reaction. Take a minute to reflect on your attitude and the environment of your current job. Are you clear on what you can control? Sharing his perspective from a career that spans the public, private, and military sectors, Mike Jelen, vice president and managing director at VHB, offers insights that ensure a resilient career.

"For me, agility has been a key attribute in ensuring career resilience. An old colonel that mentored me when I was a young captain would always counsel to only 'fight the good fight' during challenging times. What he meant was that, in addition to knowing what one can control, one must also know when that no longer matters because the situation at hand is beyond one's ability to control or even influence. It is ok to move on and in to new situations where the challenges can be overcome, and to move nimbly from bad situations into good ones."

Planning and Public Health

Scott Ulrich, AICP

Interested in the link between the built environment and public health? Meet Scott Ulrich, AICP, Healthy Places Program Director and City Bicycle Coordinator for Columbus, Ohio. In this video, Scott talks about relationships and being bilingual in planning and public health.

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In his current position Scott's role involves land use, transportation planning, walkability, bikeability, and trails as well as providing technical assistance to developers on healthy community design.

The Healthy Places program exists because where people live has a profound impact on their health. Learn more about the specifics and accomplishments from Columbus, Ohio, in this webinar.

"I believe that all planning should at least consider the health of citizens. It's not necessarily possible for every decision to support health. But it should be part of a triple-bottom-line decision-making process that takes into account social, environmental, and economic outcomes. The problem that for a long time the 'social' part was set aside because it can be very subjective and qualitative compared to the other two. But health metrics can give us a more concrete and quantitative way to measure the impact of our decisions on people, especially as we continue to build our understanding of the social determinants of health.

"I've always been interested in planning for active transportation and placemaking. But I think I was interested in those things for reasons other than health — I think I was focused on the 'macro' benefits of those things. Walking and biking and transit are the most efficient forms of transportation; pedestrian and transit-oriented development result in more efficient use of land; all of these very rational, intangible reasons.

"It really wasn't until I started this job that the 'micro' benefits really hit me — that what we do as planners affects people in very direct and tangible ways, not just through their neighborhoods and roadways, but quite literally how they feel and how long they live.

"I think that may be reflective of a planner's career development. We come out of school thinking very rationally and theoretically, wanting to wave our magic wand and redesign the city to make it 'better.' But as we do the job, and talk to the people we serve, no matter how deep we get in the weeds of plans, projects and policies, we ultimately realize how personal our work really is. That at the end of the day, no matter what we're actually planning, we're planning for people."

Evolution of the Planning Field

Ralph Willmer, FAICP

Considering a career in planning or looking for the next step for your planning career? Ralph Willmer, FAICP, gives his perspective on where he anticipates growth areas and changes in the field of planning.

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Recognized by his peers as making outstanding contributions to the profession with over 30 years of experience, Ralph is eminently qualified to predict the growth areas for planning jobs:

"It can be hard to plan a planning career because there are lots of exciting options and one has to think about the best path toward achieving their long-term career goals.

"The first difficult decision relates to education — should I get a master's degree? While the answer is yes (graduate school will vastly increase your employment options) there are numerous choices among the more than 70 accredited master's programs in planning.

"There are also numerous disciplines within the planning field beyond a general land use practice such as transportation, zoning, housing, economic development, environmental, sustainability, and others.

"Finally, there are also a number of choices in terms of the type of employment. Do you want to work in the public or private sector, or perhaps in academia? Even within the public sector, there are jobs at the local, regional, state, and federal level. On the private side, there are planning firms and multi-disciplinary firms with planning departments, or you can be your boss.

"Fortunately, one always has the option to try different experiences until you settle into a position that feels comfortable."

Creating a Culture of Change

Deana Rhodeside, PhD

Principal and Director, Rhodeside & Harwell, and Vice Chair of APA's Private Practice Division

I have a master's in psychology and then became interested in the relationship between the social sciences and the physical realm, and so began to figure out ways to put those two together and discovered planning.

I decided to go back for an additional degree in planning. After doing some research at Harvard on the sociological impacts of the physical realm, I went to MIT for a doctorate degree in urban studies and planning. Because that combination is fairly unusual, I've always been an independent consultant and started my own private consulting practice, working with designers on the impacts of their decisions on community and human dynamics.

In 1980, I went into practice with two design and large-scale planning professionals: Elliot Rhodeside and Faye Harwell — both landscape architects. We are now celebrating our 30th year as Rhodeside & Harwell.

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Q: As you got more employees, was there a point where you saw a shift in the way you worked?

A: We started Rhodeside & Harwell with just the three of us and, within the first six months, hired four additional professionals. Over the years, each time we'd reach a plateau in number of employees, we'd say, "Okay, this is it, we're big enough," and then we'd adapt to that number and continue to grow. We currently have more than 30 people at RHI.

We've always been conscious about the importance of maintaining a collaborative culture, particularly since we're a multidisciplinary firm. Our landscape architects, urban designers and the planners typically work together on projects. We formed our partnership to be collaborative from the outset. We believe that consensus is important to successful partnerships and that idea has expanded to our firm as a whole. We feel that it's important for people to be encouraged to express their views. Different views enrich all of the work that we do.

In the last five years, our nation has had a substantial cultural shift with the number of vocal and talented younger professionals entering the workforce. This change is also reflected in our office with many dynamic younger staff joining the firm. We think this is fabulous! It's enlivened all of the work that we do and allowed us to view our planning options in new ways.

We've also come to realize that our younger staff has different needs, goals, and interests. So we've begun to talk a lot about ways to engage and involve all of our staff in taking an interest and participating in all aspects of our work.

We frequently have pinups to provide broad feedback for a team working on any given project. In addition, we have a new website that reflects the planning and design perspective of our younger staff and imparts the message that we are open to new ideas and people. We are constantly updating this site in order to ensure that we remain on top of key issues and trends.

Another element that fosters our commitment to collaboration is reflected in the open design of our office. We have organized our space around a series of quads, which allow people to communicate openly, work together, and move flexibly from team to team.

Our open studio is a reflection of our desire to encourage people at all levels to have a greater say in, and understanding of, what we do. We sometimes organize mini charrettes at our office meetings in order to encourage more open discussions around questions such as: How are we doing? What could we be doing better? What are our goals and how do we achieve them?

It's been a tremendous asset to our firm having younger staff involved in these critical discussions. Working this way has affected all of our feelings about the work that we produce.

Q: What's your vision for the future of your company?

A: We think that encouraging leadership is an essential part of the future of the firm to ensure that we continue the significant role of Rhodeside & Harwell within both the planning and design communities. In fact, succession planning is something we're actively committed to with the idea of gradually transitioning the firm internally so that we can continue to evolve our leadership for the long-term future.

Q: Has your involvement with APA been helpful?

A: APA has been wonderful not only for me, but for much of our staff. Members of Rhodeside & Harwell have organized and presented sessions at the National Planning Conference for many years. It's a great experience for all of us to be able to get out in front of colleagues, demonstrate creative ideas, and learn from others.

My role at APA has shifted this year because I've become Vice Chair of the Private Practice Division. I'm really excited about my role and the division because it's a home for mid-sized firms like ours, as well as smaller firms and individual sole practitioners. I'm hoping that, as we move along, we can also add larger firms to the Private Practice Division as well.

I'd like the division to continue to be a place that allows all of us to share ideas about how we do business in private practice and to learn successful lessons and insights from each other.