Looking back to 2008, who would have recommended becoming a planner? Developers were shutting up shop, cranes were disappearing from the skyline and local authorities were looking ahead to years of cost cutting. Meanwhile, strategic planning was under threat, with regional strategies on the verge of being scrapped.
But 2016 looks very different. The construction industry has bounced back and major projects across the country are being dusted off to be worked up into applications. Local authorities still suffer from a lack of resources but planning is no longer in the frontline for cuts as central government recognises its importance in delivering economic growth. Strategic planning is back on the agenda under the government's devolution drive, while ministers have set a 2017 deadline for all local plans to be completed.
The intervening years have seen a reduced number of entrants into the profession and the result is a wealth of new opportunities for candidates with a few years' experience. While greater numbers of graduates are now coming into the industry, there is plenty of scope for more experienced planners who can show initiative and set themselves apart from the crowd.
Where are the opportunities?
"It's a brilliant time for planners because there's a national shortage," says Anna Rose, director of planning at Milton Keynes Council and vice-president of the Planning Officers Society. "It's really a planner's market in terms of those who have experience or who have been stuck during the recession and are now able to move." John Pitchford, head of planning at Suffolk County Council, says county authorities often get fewer candidates than expected for the opportunities they advertise. "County councils are still there. They still have planning teams - a lot smaller than 20 years ago but still out there recruiting," he says.
That's not just the view from the public sector. Consultancies are seeing spiralling demand for their services and need to recruit accordingly. Martin Hawthorne, director at WYG, says: "From a client point of view, there was a slight hesitancy before the election. Now, with housing at the top of the agenda, I think that hesitancy has gone."
Opportunities to work in-house for developers are also on the rise. Jeremy Wright, associate director at recruitment specialists Macdonald & Company, says: "The volume of client-side roles has certainly risen over the past year or 18 months or so." Jason Moore, consultant at Cobalt Recruitment, concurs: "We're not only seeing a massive increase in London but that's spreading to the regions. Manchester is competing with London now."
Who's in demand?
Anyone with a few years' experience under their belt is well placed. Falling numbers of graduates in recent years, combined with natural churn from retirement and older planners retiring from the profession, means many councils and consultancies are struggling to find experienced candidates. Gavin Hall, director at Savills, says: "We're trying to appoint at the associate level. You're looking at someone who is beginning to have client links and who is able to lead projects. There's quite a difficulty finding people at that level."
There are also openings for those starting out in the industry. Moore says many firms have boosted their investment in graduate schemes in an attempt to avoid repeated recruitment struggles in the future. "Over the last couple of years I've seen more investing in junior roles and investing in graduate planners so they will internally promote," he says. Equally, according to Hawthorne, junior planners with limited experience shouldn't be put off applying for positions. He says he would be interested in "people who understand what the role of the consultant is all about, care about projects and convey that to the client". He adds: "I'd much rather have someone with two or three years' experience and that attitude."
Certain skills and attributes look set to be in particular demand in 2016. "There's a recognition in many places that we do need to come together to look across an area at the strategic issues," says Pitchford. "We need people who've got the skills and interest in doing that."
Paul Barnard, assistant director for strategic planning and infrastructure at Plymouth City Council, says planners who can demonstrate an understanding of the financial realities of development will be sought after. "When I started my career, issues of viability were not taken as being part of what we should be dealing with as planners. Now financial issues are explicitly part of being a planner."
Hall suggests that planners looking for more senior roles should approach firms with any niche skills they have that may be in short supply, such as marine planning. "Something interesting that the team might think, 'we haven't got that'," he says.
Finding the right role
For those just entering the profession, Rose suggests seeking out a graduate programme that will provide an experience in strategic planning and in dealing with applications. "A lot of local authorities and private sector organisations are now doing that holistic programme," she says. Jane Dann, director at Tibbalds, suggests graduates should be "flexible and aim to gain a range of experience".
Rose suggests that even those not applying to a graduate programme should probe potential employers about career development prospects. "Because it's a planner's market I would suggest asking those very relevant questions about training and mentoring," she says. Hall agrees: "A lot of local authorities don't support graduates to get Royal Town Planning Institute qualifications or pay professional membership fees. We are finding people with six years' experience who have had no imperative or push to take the assessment of professional competence. Make sure you have that in place."
Naturally, salary is always a consideration but Barnard recommends looking at the broader picture. Some planners will find their home in consultancy while others will get greater satisfaction elsewhere, he says. "Most people get into this profession because they want to make a difference."
Five ways to make your CV stand out in 2016
1 Highlight your practical experience
Planners with a few years' experience are in short supply, so demonstrate your record with specific examples, says Anna Rose, director of planning at Milton Keynes Council. "I read too many CVs that are really academic - they are all about report writing and marks in tests," she says. "Really think about what you're going to be doing in that job and apply your experience."
2 Explain what you can bring to employers
There may not be a large number of management level jobs around, but candidates who can secure new work are very much in demand. "It's a business case we're having to look at," says Gavin Hall, director at Savills. Candidates become much more appealing "if we can see you're going to cover costs by bringing clients with you", he adds.
3 Specialise in a particular niche
Candidates for more senior roles should consider emphasising their specialisms or looking for roles in niche areas that fit their experience. "I think in some ways planning is becoming more specialist," says Jane Dann, director at Tibbalds. "For example, there's always a shortage of planners with good design skills."
4 Emphasise your personal skills
Strategic planning and major projects are growth areas, meaning employers are looking for candidates with good communication skills and the ability to work with multiple stakeholders. John Pitchford, head of planning at Suffolk County Council, says: "Demonstrate the ability to appreciate the roles of all sorts of different players and pull those together."
5 Explain any anomalies in your record
The volatility of the job market in recent years means many candidates may have moved around a lot or have gaps in their job history. Being able to offer justification for these can allay any concerns a prospective employer might have. "If you've changed tack, take the opportunity to explain that," says Hall. "We might make the wrong assumption."