Changing course

As public sector cuts take effect, redundancies in the planning profession will loom larger. But training can help minimise the threat of redundancy, as well as assist a return to work, says Mark Wilding

Training can take you in a new direction. Jason Bennion illustration
Training can take you in a new direction. Jason Bennion illustration

Few jobs are for life. And with widespread redundancies in recent years and a limited pool of vacancies, finding another post can be a tough prospect. More and more planners are finding themselves out of work, so employers can take their pick from well-rounded candidates with a range of skills. As a result, it has never been more important for job-seekers to ensure that their CVs are as attractive as possible.

Universities offer a range of opportunities for those willing to retrain or boost their knowledge. The possibilities range from one-day courses through to doctorates. And there is the possibility of studying around a job. What's more, employers, keen to attract and retain the best staff, increasingly offer career development programmes. So, with a wealth of options available, there are several factors to consider, such as the time you have available, the direction you want to pursue and any skill gaps within your chosen discipline.

Almost all planning schools accredited by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) run masters degrees in various aspects of practice. These offer the opportunity to build on previous training with a discipline-specific qualification. Typical specialisms include regeneration, environmental assessment and international planning, which offers the additional possibility of exploring job markets abroad.

The Bartlett School of Planning at University College London, for instance, runs masters degrees in spatial planning, international planning, urban regeneration and sustainable urbanism. Professor Matthew Carmona, the school's head, says: "Planners who have more than one string to their bow are likely to be more sought after by employers, who will be able to use them more flexibly. It also opens up opportunities to apply for a wider range of jobs."

Masters degrees typically involve a year's full-time study. But with the jobs market likely to remain uncertain for years to come, going back to school for a longer period is also becoming an attractive option. Studying for a PhD also involves gaining an impressive qualification (see box).

Dr Iain Deas, head of planning at the University of Manchester, says: "There's lots of interest in doing a PhD. To a large extent, that reflects the labour market as it provides some time out and ensures your attractiveness to employers. But people usually want to do it because it's interesting and they bring passion and commitment to it, which you really need if you're embarking on a PhD."

However, while some might relish the prospect of an extended period of study, it isn't for everyone. Instead, signing up for short courses can enable specialist skills to be developed without committing to years out of paid employment.

The University of Westminster began offering short courses as part of the Build Up programme, backed by the Higher Education Funding Council and aimed at unemployed built environment professionals. The programme has now ended, but according to the university it will be launching a new programme soon, including courses lasting between one and three days dealing with development plans, planning for housing and development finance.

Tim Edmundson, head of the university's urban development and regeneration department, says: "There is still a need to develop skills in a lot of areas across the built environment. During a tight labour market, it makes sense for planners to improve their skills." Subsidised places will be available for unemployed planners, Edmundson says.

However, those who have recently lost their jobs are not the only ones who need to assess their skills and competitiveness. Planners who want to explore opportunities in different parts of the sector might need additional training. Equally, those wanting to progress within their discipline need to keep up to date with developments in the profession to ensure they maintain their competitive edge.

The RTPI has compiled a list of transferable, non-sector specific skills that planners can develop. These include financial management, dealing with negotiations and political awareness. Planners who feel they need to work on these skills may find they can do so with their employer's support.

Property consultancy Bidwells is introducing various training programmes intended to develop generic skills. Jerry Cartwright, the newly appointed group head of learning and development, says: "We're looking at building leadership capability, management skills and business acumen. We want to make sure that our people are ready to deal with the significant challenges facing all organisations."

Planners who are keen to keep abreast of developments in disciplines outside their own may also find the opportunity in the office. Planning and design consultancy Barton Willmore aims to give staff a grounding in areas of the business outside their own and runs courses including design for non-designers. People director Matthew West-Taylor says: "We have training so everybody understands the range of our services, which is important for us as a multidisciplinary practice."

Meanwhile, town planning consultancy Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners runs a mentoring programme that provides ways to learn more about other aspects of its business and a forum to discuss potential moves. Director Peter Wilks says: "It provides somebody you can talk to in confidence. There might be someone who wants to work in a different part of the business, but who doesn't want to talk about that with their line manager."

Moving jobs within your current organisation is probably the easiest way to refresh your career, but won't be an option available to everybody. Sometimes a return to study will be necessary to acquire the skills needed for a change in direction. When considering a course, one factor will be the time you have available, which may rule out options such as a PhD or even a masters. However, most universities allow students to take masters degrees on a part-time basis. Each unit typically only requires a commitment of half a day a week for 12 weeks, but could eventually be built up into a full masters qualification.

Beyond considering time constraints, it is critical to identify the skills required to get a job in the part of the sector to which you want to move. With so many planners competing for work, it makes sense to ensure that your qualifications match those required in your ideal job description.

Indeed, Edmundson suggests that planners should select their courses and identify the parts of the sector that they want to move into with a view to plugging gaps in the market. "Planners should try and take a course that enables them to update their skills or develop new ones - anything that gives them an edge. Try and obtain any skills that are specialist or in short supply," he advises.

Qualifications accredited by both the RTPI and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors are said in some quarters to be increasingly sought after. As public sector jobs decrease in the wake of the punishing local government settlement, private sector vacancies will become more heavily contested. Proving your commercial sensibilities could provide that much-needed edge.

Masters degrees in urban regeneration and environmental assessment at the University of Manchester are now both dual accredited. Deas says: "That's something that's proving increasingly attractive and tends to be seen as a powerful combination in the jobs market." He is backed up by Wilks at Nathaniel Lichfield. "It's always helpful to have planners with a commercial bent, particularly when you are working with private sector clients," he says.

It is important to remember that no one piece of training is likely to equip you for the rest of your career and that skills continually need updating. Carmona from the Bartlett School of Planning says: "Postgraduate education is often the starting point of an ongoing reskilling."

If you're out of work, you have a chance to retrain full-time and if you've got a job, there are other options available to progress. But whatever your decision, it's likely to only be the start of the road. The planning world is tumultuous and it can seem like a battle to stay on top of all the developments but this is how you'll find the opportunities. There's no time to be complacent when it comes to your career.

How I reacted to redundancy

Alistair Kefford. Former York City Council employee and current masters student

I lost my job in 2009, just before Christmas. I'd joined York City Council two years earlier, two months after graduating with a degree in urban history. My job involved helping officers with all aspects of planning applications and inquiries. I went on to carry out various roles within the development control, urban design and archaeology teams. But the council lost a lot of staff because of the Labour Government's cuts to the local authority planning grant.

When I was made redundant, I decided to apply to do a masters degree in urban regeneration and development at the University of Manchester. I'd already been looking at some of the courses there with a view to continuing my career but moving a bit higher up the ladder. I'd been working with the nuts and bolts of the planning system but decided I was more interested in the regeneration side of things. When I was let go by the council, I decided it was time to do it and I got on the course within six weeks of being made redundant.

Recently, I put in an application to do a PhD looking at urban regeneration and town planning in Manchester and Leeds since the Second World War. That's another three years of studying. A big motivation for deciding to do it was the increasingly bleak picture for jobs in planning and, specifically, in regeneration. The jobs market is particularly bad in Yorkshire and there are few opportunities. A PhD may lead to a research career. But I'd also like to look at working on regeneration projects. It depends how the job market pans out in the next few years.

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