Urban Planning Jobs: How to Get Them and What to Expect

Mar 12, 2015 - Joe Matar
Are you interested in making cities and towns better places for the people who live there? Do you like to think about improving housing opportunities, making roads safer and creating effective, environmentally friendly communities in which people can work, raise families and build lives? Planners work for local, state or federal governments, for consulting firms or for educational organizations. If you’ve seen NBC’s Parks and Recreation, you’ve seen planners in action; Paul Schneider’s character, Mark Brendanawicz, was a city planner, and many of the storylines revolve around city planning, community building and historical preservation. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the 2012 median urban and regional planner salary as $65,230 per year, and notes that this career is likely to grow over the next decade. I asked Monica Groh, Director of Emerging Professionals at the American Planning Association, to share her thoughts about the future of planning jobs and how students can prepare for these careers. (Click here to share this article.)

What kinds of jobs are available for people interested in urban and community planning?

There are a variety of career opportunities within the planning profession in both the public and private sectors. Jobs may include working directly as a staff person for a community, county, metropolitan region or state, or working as a consultant for a planning, architecture, or landscape architecture firm or agency. Within the profession, there are a number of specialties an individual can pursue, including economic development, transportation, housing, urban design and environmental. In fact, the American Planning Association has 20 divisions that each focus on a specific aspect of planning so professionals can easily connect. A sampling of job opportunities that have recently posted on the American Planning Association’s Jobs Online board include: regional planning assistant, transportation planner, natural resource manager, tribal planner, housing policy and projects manager, economic development specialist and historic preservation officer.

How have these jobs changed in the past decade?

Within the past decade, we’ve seen more planning employment opportunities being offered through companies and organizations that one would not necessarily think would hire a planner. These include public school systems, police departments, commerce departments, law firms, and technology companies.

What about the future of urban planning jobs?

By tracking data through the American Planning Association’s Jobs Online service, we’ve seen a 53 percent increase in job opportunities in just the past four years. The top Census regions currently hiring in the past year include the South Atlantic, East North Central, Mountain and Pacific.

How can today's college students prepare for careers in urban and community planning? Should they seek out degrees in planning or architecture? Should they plan for graduate school? Should they join professional organizations?

Most planners attend a school for a degree in planning, whether via undergraduate or graduate programs. We suggest people check out the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning website as well as the ACSP’s Guide to Undergraduate and Graduate Education in Urban and Regional Planning to find out the best program for them. Individuals pursuing a career in planning may earn a bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degree. Many undergraduate students go on to earn a master’s degree in planning. Graduate school is not mandatory, but it definitely helps a student’s knowledge base. Those pursuing a doctorate of planning often select a career in academia or with research or policy institutions. The American Planning Association has a ton of resources that are geared towards students and other emerging professionals. We highly recommend students join APA and get involved with their local APA state chapter and the chapter’s Young Planners Group if there is one in your area. It’s a great way to expand your network, meeting potential employers and getting advice about jobs or specializations to pursue. We offer reduced dues and special discounts for students to keep membership affordable. We have many scholarships to help with costs as well. APA also has a career website that is a good resource. Certification is available through the American Planning Association’s professional institute, the American Institute of Certified Planners. A certified planner will use the initials AICP after their name to indicate certification. The certification, often preferred by employers, demonstrates a candidate’s mastery of knowledge and skills necessary for planning. To earn certification, a planner must meet certain education requirements and pass a written examination. Continuing education, called certification maintenance, ensures that planners remain current in the practice of planning. APA’s professional institute also offers Advanced Specialty Certification in three areas of specialty: transportation planning, environmental planning and urban design. The American Planning Association offers engagement opportunities through its Planning Student Organizations, currently at more than 40 universities and colleges. These organizations connect students not only on campus, but also to campuses across the country. The Early Career Membership Program is also specifically designed for planning students and new planning professionals as an easy way to become part of the national organization of nearly 40,000 members.

What else would you like today's college students to know about careers in urban and community planning?

The skills college students learn in planning school are transferable to all kinds of jobs and areas of interest, including public health, food systems, nonprofits, climate change and hazards and community resilience. Getting a planning degree opens the doors to all kinds of possibilities. Jobs build on one another to create a career. There is no reason for a “career” to be viewed as a direct, linear path. Jobs are about discovering your likes and dislikes, passions and skills. If students are interested in pursuing a career in planning, it is a good idea to speak with someone currently working within the profession or even to set up a job shadowing day. An experienced planner can provide valuable insight into education, training and the profession overall. Nicole Dieker is a freelance copywriter and essayist. She writes regularly for The Billfold on the intersection of freelance writing and personal finance, and her work has also appeared in The Toast, Yearbook Office, and Boing Boing.