Planning November 2014

New Planners on the Block

Today's emerging professionals navigate a changing professional landscape.

By Mary Hammon | Photo illustrations by John Ritter

It is a fascinating, and challenging, time for the planning profession.

As technology brings people closer, expands the realm of the possible, and engages citizens more profoundly, major planning issues like climate change, sustainability, health, and social equity continue to intersect. Add to this the economic challenges brought on by the Great Recession, plus heightened interest in urban issues, and the picture gets even more complex.

A whole new generation of planners is poised to jump into the fray. They are armed with a cache of new skills and ideas, eager to make their mark on the world and the profession. Some have already done just that.

After the 2010 Haiti earthquake, emerging planning professional Vanessa Leon made it her mission to enhance the physical, social, and economic development of vulnerable communities. She currently works with the Petit-GoĆ¢ve community in Haiti to collect interactive GIS data to put the remote mountain community on the map, which will help them achieve their community's short- and long-term development goals

Making an impact

At 30, Joseph van Dyk, director of redevelopment in Gary, Indiana (pop. 78,450), is usually the youngest person at the meetings he routinely attends.

Getting into redevelopment had always been his goal; he just never expected it to happen so quickly. While obtaining his master's in urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2011, he interned with the Gary economic development department. He was later hired as zoning administrator, and promoted to redevelopment director less than two years later.

In his year and a half as redevelopment director, with a staff of five and a shoestring budget, his department has scored several wins, he says, thanks to extensive collaboration with partners. One achievement van Dyk points to is the demolition of the downtown Sheraton Hotel, which began this July. The hotel, vacant for more than 20 years, has long been a symbol of blight.

"It's a big responsibility," van Dyk says. "I'm always at work. But it's fun because I can . . . make a real impact on the city." He says he hopes to change people's perception of Gary and, in doing so, create more opportunities for its residents.

Some 550 miles south of Gary, in Chattanooga, Tennessee (pop. 168,300), 30-year-old Jenny Park, a senior planner, spends a lot of time on the job at the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency, and a lot of her personal time, creating opportunities for local people through her work in transportation and civic data.

After graduating from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2011 with a master's degree in public administration, Park wanted to see more public transportation resources available to citizens. At the time, Chattanooga did not have a multimodal trip planner — not even the public transit mapping option through Google Maps.

To fill the gap, Park spent personal time coleading a group called Open Chattanooga, which uses public data to solve community problems. For the last few years, it has been working with the mayor, city departments, and other partners to open city data to the public.

One result is the city's new multimodal trip planner. Though it had been "coming soon" for three years, the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority didn't have the capacity to build it. Then when CARTA posted its transit data on the city's new public data portal (thanks in part to Open Chattanooga's efforts), within a week a private app developer added the data into the smartphone application TransitApp, making the trip planner available for Chattanooga — at no cost to the city and a lot of value to residents.

"I think we have a tendency as planners to not want to release anything until it's perfect," Park says. "Let's not wait until we have every single thing lined up perfectly. . . . It can be helpful to start a process with what you have and just try to get people involved in that conversation." 

Joseph van Dyk, director of redevelopment for Gary, Indiana, says the demolition of the long-vacant downtown Sheraton Hotel is a huge win for the city

Job outlook

Van Dyk and Park have success stories, but many emerging planning professionals are facing a tough employment environment.

In 2008 and 2009, the U.S. labor market lost 8.4 million jobs (6.1 percent of all payroll employment). The recession hit the planning profession hard; public, private, and philanthropic sectors were all affected. Budgets were slashed, projects were delayed or eliminated, staffs were downsized — leaving many new college graduates and entry-level planners stuck in career limbo.

According to Jacob Kain, senior planner for the city of Gainesville and a former chair of the young planners group of the Florida Chapter of APA, planning students no longer count on having a job lined up at graduation.

When Kain graduated with his master's in urban and regional planning from the University of Florida in 2011, he stepped into a tough job market. Though he says he "fell into" his job relatively easily (he was interning with the city of Gainesville when a staff position opened up), many of his peers had a more difficult transition. Entry-level job opportunities were scarce, and competition for them was stiff.

Internships are now a vital part of a new graduate's arsenal, along with networking, volunteer work, leadership roles in planning projects, fellowships, and involvement in young planners groups and professional organizations like APA and its state chapters.

Many planning schools require students to complete a certain number of internship hours as part of their degrees. But, says Zarui Neksalyan, career services advisor with the University of Southern California's Sol Price School of Public Policy, students who do more in-person networking and experience-building activities (on top of Sol Price's 400-hour internship requirement) typically get more, and better, jobs.

La Mikia CastilloOne of those students, La Mikia Castillo, graduated from USC in 2012 with dual master's degrees in planning and policy, three internships, a few part-time jobs, and a graduate research assistantship under her belt — as well as a full-time policy analyst job lined up at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

"I just wanted to take advantage of as many opportunities as I could," says Castillo of her time as a graduate student, not only to get practical, on-the-job experience but also to explore the career paths available to her in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.

Today she is a program manager for Education Pioneers in Los Angeles, exploring the link between education and planning. She is also an active USC alumna. She encourages students and prospective students to be as active as they can, building their networks to create opportunities. "I think that's so important," she says.

The bright spot for emerging professionals? There are signs of improvement on the job front.

"It's on a positive trend," says Hillary Bardwell, assistant director of career services and alumni relations for the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. She has seen the number of employment opportunities (full-time, part-time, and internships) advertised to Rutgers planning students increase by 50 percent in the last two years.

The increase in jobs and internships posted on APA's Jobs Online board echoes that data. Between 2010 and 2013, the annual number of postings increased from 993 to 1,552 — a 56 percent jump (though it is unclear how many of those jobs were entry-level).

The upward trend is expected to continue. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a job growth rate of 10 percent for urban and regional planners between 2012 and 2022, which would keep pace with the estimated growth rate for all U.S. industries. However, according to Bardwell, average regional job growth rates for urban and regional planners vary between eight and 14 percent, with the highest rates concentrated in California, Texas, and the South.

"The [job] outlook is improving," says Liz Probst, AICP, coordinator for the APA Arizona mentorship program. "But it's slow and steady versus big jumps in demand." She says the steep competition and the tough economy are forcing many graduates to "exhibit perseverance and creativity in their job search."

Getting creative

Many emerging planning professionals recognize the value they can bring to industries outside the realm of traditional planning, and they are finding unique applications for their degrees, including community outreach, civic tech, market research, education, and policy work.

Molly TurnerSoon after Molly Turner, head of civic partnerships for Airbnb, began earning her master's in urban planning with a focus on tourism planning at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design in 2011, she realized she would have to forge her own path — and convince someone to hire her afterward.

"My perspective on tourism planning is not widely accepted," Turner says. "I am very passionate about, for lack of a better term, microtourism or community-based tourism planning instead of what has become the more traditional top-down, large facility, megaevent, convention center tourism planning."

Upon graduation, she tried to find a job in city government but quickly realized she might have more luck in the private sector. That was when she "stumbled onto" a new career path in tech — a job with Airbnb, the home-sharing website based in San Francisco. Today she is doing what she's always wanted: helping civic leaders leverage the power of tourism to achieve benefits for their cities, residents, and visitors.

She is also passionate about connecting planners with the tech world. "I think the more tech companies start to wade into the realm of urbanism and their effect on urban cities, the more they'll look for urban planners," Turner says. 

Jenny Park meets with her Open Chattanooga coleader and founder Tim Moreland and two Code for America fellows in Chattanooga's city hall to collaborate on civic tech solutions

Workforce shifts

Another trend affecting the planning profession: The U.S. workforce is much more diverse now. Four generations work side by side.

APA's most recent membership survey reflects this makeup: One percent of APA members surveyed are 70 and older (Silent Generation), 57 percent are between 45 and 69 years old (baby boomers and Generation X), 27 percent are 35–44 (Generation X), and 15 percent are under 35 (Millennials).

This mix of generations poses unique challenges. "It requires [emerging professionals] to be able to do much more in terms of interaction with different and diverse groups," says recruiter Frank DeSafey, principal of Sequence Staffing, an agency that works to connect planning job seekers and employers.

He adds: "Being a planner, it's always important to be a connector . . . someone who is a focal point for change in the community or in projects, but now more than ever, we're seeking a communication skill set and a project management skill set that just isn't always thought of."

In the next five years, as more baby boomers reach retirement age, up to 18 percent of the U.S. workforce could retire. Whether they will do so is another matter; some demographers suspect boomers will work longer than the generations before them. But by 2020, Millennials could account for roughly 50 percent of U.S. workers.

This is one reason why many in the profession believe mentorship of new planners is more important than ever. The Arizona Chapter of APA has seen a lot of success with its mentorship and professional development program, according to Liz Probst, who says she has been contacted by organizations and planning schools in other states who want to start similar programs.

APA offers mentoring events at its national conference to connect emerging professionals with mid- and senior-level planners. Attendees like these events, says Monica Groh, APA's director of early career programs, and they will be offered again at APA's national conference in Seattle next April.

Changing careers

The shifting workforce dynamic could also benefit emerging planning professionals from the Gen-X and baby boomer generations, who bring the interpersonal skills and management experience they have built in previous careers, says DeSafey.

That's right: Despite all the buzz about the Millennial generation, not all emerging planning professionals are Millennials.

Perry StevensOne of these individuals is Perry Stevens, a 52-year-old criminal defense lawyer from Angleton, Texas. Stevens, who has an undergraduate degree in landscape architecture from Texas Tech University, went to law school a few years later, inspired by the regulatory issues he saw emerging in his field. He graduated from the Texas A&M University School of Law in 1994 to a sputtering economy. With a family to support, he pursued a career in criminal law and built a successful firm.

Twenty years later, he wants to go back to his true passion: development, land use, and the environment. His dream, he says, is to buddy up with creative people who are moving planning in a forward direction and who recognize there can always be a better way. "The belief [that] we do it this way because this is the way we have always done it is not acceptable," Stevens adds.

While he knows it will be a difficult transition and he has some additional education to complete, he hopes to sell his practice and begin the transition to planning next spring or summer. "I don't believe it's ever too late to go out and succeed at what you're passionate about," Stevens says.

Wanted: skills, skills, skills

#PlanMag To compete in today's competitive job market, emerging planning professionals are being called on to develop a diverse set of skills and abilities — skill sets completely different from those of planners who have been in the profession for 20 or 30 years.

That is because, Hillary Bardwell says, middle and senior management in planning departments are typically in supervisory roles, and they rely on the entry-level planners for their skills, both new and traditional. So when it comes to hiring, Bardwell says, "Like the AT&T commercial says: More is better."

In addition to a solid foundation of planning theory and history, new planners need to be well versed in GIS, Excel, and PowerPoint; data analysis; and finance. Further, some employers are now looking for new hires with technical skills not normally associated with planning, such as graphic design, 3-D illustration, and coding.

While emerging professionals are trained in these hard technical skills before graduation, "soft skills" like effective written and verbal communication, as well as public speaking, presenting, and politics, are also extremely important.

Strong written and verbal communication skills are the most important skills emerging professionals should acquire — and the most desired by employers — according to a recent survey of 800 planning professionals from across the country conducted by the APA Arizona Mentorship Program and Professional Development Committee.

The career experts interviewed for this article say they look for other skills that are less tangible but still valuable to employers: a fresh perspective, flexibility, adeptness with technology, willingness to collaborate, curiosity, adaptability, nimbleness, and a desire to try new ways of solving planning challenges.

"Emerging professionals are, obviously, the next generation of planners," says Stephen Benson, AICP, a bicycle-pedestrian safety specialist for the Florida Department of Transportation and the first Millennial to serve on the Hillsborough County Planning Commission in Florida. "We have a lot to learn," he says, while adding that he and his peers can offer assets such as a fresh approach and a collaborative nature. 

"These emerging professionals are global citizens," Bardwell says. "They are understanding and flexible and able to deal with the issues of today and tomorrow. And they have the curiosity and the skill set to want to jump in and solve them."

Helping communities here and abroad

Vanessa Leon, a Haitian-American urban planner and native New Yorker, is one such global citizen. She was finishing up her master's in urban planning at New York University's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service when the 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti in 2010.

Fascinated by public policy, particularly social justice and social policy, she had originally planned to work in the public sector, but after the earthquake, her plans quickly changed. At the age of 24, inspired by Haiti's struggle and wanting to contribute to the country's recovery, she started her own international planning firm.

Today she is principal and founder of Pinchina Consulting, and her mission is to enhance the physical, social, and economic development of vulnerable communities. She works on rebuilding and planning efforts in Haiti, specifically the community of Petit-Goâve, as well as planning efforts in several other Caribbean countries.

"Planners are needed now more than ever before" — all over the world, Leon says. And she says the onus is on planners to make the case for their involvement. "We have to carve out our spot at the table," she says.

Leon hopes to do just that. In addition to her work in Haiti, she is currently pursuing a doctorate in public and urban policy at the New School's Milano School for International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy, and was recently chosen by Next City as one of the 2014 Vanguard Conference's "40 Urban Leaders Under 40."

The next generation

Who are today's emerging professionals? Passionate, strategic, long-term thinkers, change makers, urbanists, communicators, tech-savvy — these are a few of the various words they use to describe themselves.

However, all the emerging professionals interviewed for this article definitely have one thing in common: A strong desire to create positive change for the communities around them.

As for what the planning profession and the world can expect from this next generation of planners, Joseph van Dyk offers these words: "Wait and watch. Let our work speak for itself."

Mary Hammon is Planning's assistant editor.


Images: Top — After the 2010 Haiti earthquake, emerging planning professional Vanessa Leon made it her mission to enhance the physical, social, and economic development of vulnerable communities. She currently works with the Petit-Goâve community in Haiti to collect interactive GIS data to put the remote mountain community on the map, which will help them achieve their community's short- and long-term development goals. Photo by Matthew Henderson. Middle — Joseph van Dyk, director of redevelopment for Gary, Indiana, says the demolition of the long-vacant downtown Sheraton Hotel is a huge win for the city. Courtesy City of Gary. Bottom Jenny Park meets with her Open Chattanooga coleader and founder Tim Moreland and two Code for America fellows in Chattanooga's city hall to collaborate on civic tech solutions. Photo by Giselle Sperber. La Mikia Castillo. Photo by Daniel Castillo. Molly Turner photo by Jessica Mulholland. Perry Stevens photo by Hamilton Studios.

Emerging Professionals Resources:

Career Development Resources:

Planners Salary Survey:

Career Advice for Emerging Planners Survey, APA Arizona Mentorship Program and Professional Development:

A Career Worth Planning, Warren W. Jones and Natalie Macris, APA Planners Press, 2000.

Becoming an Urban Planner: A Guide to Careers in Planning and Urban Design, Michael Bayer, Wiley, 2010.

Next City:

Code for America: