The five most marketable qualities for planners

Organisations that are likely to be recruiting planners in coming months tell Mark Wilding about the key attributes that they are seeking.

(Pic: VECTORSTATE)
(Pic: VECTORSTATE)

We live in a time of political uncertainty, but one thing is clear: planners remain very much in demand. While Brexit and new US president Donald Trump will continue to dominate the headlines in coming months, planning challenges will still need to be dealt with.

A chronic housing shortage in the South East and a pressing need to update the nation's infrastructure have not gone away. Planners will need to play a key role in addressing these issues. For candidates with the right experience, there will be plenty of opportunities.

Planning spoke to organisations that are likely be recruiting in the coming months to identify the skills, attributes and experience that are most in demand.

1. Housing experience

What was once a niche concern in politics is now one of the most pressing priorities in Whitehall. Barely a month goes by without a new announcement aimed at boosting the country's housing supply. Steve Norris, partner at consultancy Carter Jonas, says demand is strong for planners "who have experience in doing good, strong residential schemes in urban environments and new settlements. That's the mantra of the government - housing, housing, housing."

Chrysta Poppitt, HR director at consultancy Turley, says planners who can point to specific experience working with development clients will find work easily. "If planners have that, they are likely to be snapped up by planning consultancies," she says. If a drop in development activity was expected post-referendum, it's yet to materialise, she adds. "We haven't really had a slowdown with the developers. Shortly after Brexit we were expecting a change in the market, but a number of developers reported stronger results than they had been anticipating. Things are set to continue and the housing shortage means we have to respond to that demand."

The benefits of residential experience won't be limited to those seeking private practice jobs. Adrian Harding, acting development management manager at Brent Council, says planners with expertise in emerging but fast-moving fields, such as viability, will be in high demand in local authorities. "Whilst most people would recognise that in relation to affordable housing, viability is starting to spread into things like affordable workspace," he says. "It's still changing and morphing."

2. Major projects

Strategic sites identified in newly-adopted local plans will provide developers with opportunities in 2017 - and councils are taking steps to prepare. But, according to Harding, the skills to handle major applications are not typically found among recent graduates. He suggests that five to ten years in the profession is normally needed for such work. "It takes years to get that sort of knowledge," says Harding. "The tricky thing about development management is it doesn't really get taught meaningfully at university and is not something that lends itself to academic study. There's a shortage of principal planning officers with that level of experience."

As a consequence, Harding says he will be scouring CVs for other signs that planners have the attributes to handle major projects. Anyone who can highlight project management experience will stand out - but that doesn't mean an individual is not suitable if the don't have the PRINCE2 project management qualification. "It's understanding that planning applications have milestones and things need to be done by a certain time," he says. "That's a really important skill."

Planners who have worked on complex projects should highlight this experience in any job application, say recruiters. Adam Hart, resourcing business partner at Arup, says "large residential-led mixed-use schemes, including brownfield but also greenfield" look set to be a boom area.

Infrastructure experience also counts, he adds. "There's a serious amount of nationally significant infrastructure projects happening," he says. "Experience related to high speed rail, major highways and airport expansion is certainly going to be in high demand this year and beyond. There's increasing investment in infrastructure full-stop."

3. Business development

A desire for commercially-minded candidates emerged as a strong theme. "Companies will be looking for people with business development experience," says Poppitt, particularly when looking to fill senior roles. She urges jobseekers to consider how they can demonstrate this ability, and that it amounts to more than showing enthusiasm for networking. After meeting potential clients, "have they followed up and what has it resulted in?"

she asks. "What that does is shows they are thinking commercially. They are thinking about the value they have brought to the company. They should think about how they might showcase that experience."

Nor are business development skills only relevant in the private sector, say experts. Anna Rose, planning director at Milton Keynes Council and president of the Planning Officers Society, says: "I think they are even more relevant to local government at the moment. It's a completely new thing for local government to see a planning authority as a business. You have to treat your customers with due respect and show empathy and understanding to their business to win them over." Planners who can develop these skills will set themselves up well for the future, she adds. "That's something we're seeing local government planners getting really good at and that's why the private sector wants them," says Rose. "When people are really good at that, they are marketable."

4. Political knowledge

When preparing for an interview, it is customary to review your own skills and to research the organisation to which you have applied. But, increasingly, say our experts, you should be prepared to be quizzed on politics as well. Harding says the speed at which developments in politics and planning are unfolding provides an opportunity. Candidates can set themselves apart by "understanding the policy and legislative environment and how this can change quickly and constantly, and the willingness to keep up with it," he suggests. "In the interviews we've been holding, we've asked people to tell us about the challenges facing planning."

Hart also says candidates can stand out by "having an awareness of the fast-changing political system." So what specific topics should planners be keeping an eye on? "The development agenda of major cities and regions," he says. "There's going to be the arrival of metro mayors this spring. Developing an understanding of the Midlands Engine and the Northern Powerhouse is important because they are developing as concepts quite quickly at the moment. Have a good grasp of what all of that looks like, what it means, how it's going to change the landscape."

5. Interpersonal skills

For certain roles, the pool of potential candidates is small enough that specific professional experience becomes less important than personal qualities. Asked what he most frequently looks for, Richard Alderton, development director at Ashford Borough Council, says: "It's a horrible cliche, but an ability to get on with people, work with people - whether colleagues, customers, or partners - in delivering a project." According to Alderton, councils are now frequently required to work with a range of other organisations, making good interpersonal skills an essential part of the planning role.

In the private sector, the ability to work alongside a wide range of project partners is a sought-after attribute. In some cases, that will mean other professions within an organisation. Hart says: "When you think about those huge Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects, there's so many different aspects that mean you're inevitably going to be working with a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds." Experience working with external stakeholders is also a saleable quality, he adds. "That ability to broker between lots of different parties with different motivations and incentives is going to be quite important," he says.

Rose says: "The general point I would make is that actually being a nice person, simple as it sounds, gets you far more than a lot of these individual skills. I look for somebody who can engage with me."

HOW TO ACQUIRE THE FIVE KEY QUALITIES 

No matter what stage you are in your career, there are always ways to develop the skills that are most in demand. Nor does professional development always have to be expensive. From university programmes to book- based learning, Planning rounds up the options.

1. Housing experience

For planners looking to specialise in housing, universities offer a range of possible options ranging from master's courses to diplomas. Some also offer the option to study for single modules in subjects such as planning for housing. While master's programmes typically involve a year of full-time study, most universities offer the option to study part-time over a period of up to five years.

Georgia Butina Watson, head of planning at Oxford Brookes University, says: "Somebody who is already working can complete such courses on a day release basis." Planners specialising in other fields should consider asking for opportunities to branch out at work. Adam Hart, resourcing business partner at Arup, says: "It's important for people to seek out opportunities and diversify their experience."

2. Major projects

Gaining experience on major projects can be crucial to career progression, and isn't necessarily possible in an academic setting. Adrian Harding, acting development management manager at Brent Council, recommends planners "seek out mentoring" and "ask to shadow more senior officers on bigger schemes". Anna Rose, planning director at Milton Keynes Council and president of the Planning Officers Society, agrees: "A lot is to do with confidence and how you deal with people," she says. She suggests "trying to get into some of the relevant meetings, even at the plan-making stage, so you can see what's proposed, what it's going to look like, and you can show your enthusiasm and interest".

3. Business development

Universities aren't the only option for those wanting to continue their studies. Several organisations offer short courses and workshops on a range of planning topics, including in business development. Penny O'Shea is principal director at Trevor Roberts Associates, which offers courses to local authorities. "A lot of (local authority) planners haven't quite twigged yet that they have customers," she says.

Short courses cover issues such as how planners can give a good customer experience in the context of limited funding and time.

4. Political knowledge

You may well be up to date with all the latest political developments - but how do you show that to a potential employer? Continuing Professional Development (CPD) can take a range of forms, including private study, but you will need to keep a record of all the time you spend brushing up on the Northern Powerhouse, elected mayors and so forth. Andrew Close, head of careers, education and professional development at the Royal Town Planning Institute, says maintaining an annual performance development plan is "a requirement for our members under the code of conduct," adding: "It demonstrates that you, as a chartered planner, take your learning seriously. That also then shows you're more employable."

5. Interpersonal skills

Candidates who want to cite strong interpersonal skills in their applications should point to specific examples where they have put them into practice, say experts. Richard Alderton, development director at Ashford Borough Council, suggests highlighting evidence of "partnering skills - particularly working with private sector partners and public sector funding agencies".

Rose recommends that planners looking to build confidence should place themselves in uncomfortable situations, such as speaking in public. "I think most of it can be done through putting yourself forward," she says. "Wherever you're working at the moment, if there are opportunities that might seem daunting, go and do them anyway."


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