How we did it: Finding new planners at local universities

A scheme to tap into local university graduates has helped to secure new planners in Birmingham, Colin Marrs reports.

Graduates on the scheme with housing development officer Joy Anibaba (centre). Left to right: Eleanor Crook, James Carless, Sanya Imran, Osman Mohammed, Emmanuel Igenoza, Emma Bradley, Chloe Faulkner and Harjot Singh
Graduates on the scheme with housing development officer Joy Anibaba (centre). Left to right: Eleanor Crook, James Carless, Sanya Imran, Osman Mohammed, Emmanuel Igenoza, Emma Bradley, Chloe Faulkner and Harjot Singh

PROJECT: Birmingham City Council graduate recruitment programme

ORGANISATIONS INVOLVED: Birmingham City Council, Birmingham City University, Aston University, University of Birmingham, University of Wolverhampton, Coventry University

Birmingham City Council is far from alone in finding it difficult to attract staff to fill vacancies in its planning department. However, in 2017 it implemented an innovative scheme in partnership with local universities to give their graduates a chance to join the council. The graduate scheme – which covers a number of professions that work in the authority’s inclusive growth department, including highways and regeneration professionals as well as planning officers – has now seen a number of graduates use the scheme as a springboard to permanent positions within the planning team.

The scheme is run by Joy Anibaba, principal housing development officer at the authority. "Due to the cuts the council has been experiencing, there had been a freeze on recruitment," she says. "The scheme was introduced to bring in people at the beginning of their careers to help replace older employees as they retire."

The first challenge in creating the project was paying for it. In this respect, Anibaba highlights the role of former director of planning and regeneration Waheed Nazir, now director of inclusive growth. "Waheed was determined to do this and, despite the financial climate, was able to identify funding to pay graduates," she says. "We found contributions from the housing revenue account, planning fees and special projects."

Graduates on the programme are offered a two-year contract, which gives them paid work experience while they are allowed to attend Masters courses on day release. Sanya Imran, a development officer who joined the programme in September, says: "It gives you an insight into the real world of planning and a chance to apply the theory you are learning."

The scheme relies on good relationships with the local universities. "I run a number of workshops at the institutions to explain the process of applying for the contract," says Anibaba. "For a lot of the students, applying for jobs is a new thing and they can find it difficult."

Once they are accepted onto the programme, another challenge comes from helping the recruits settle into the world of work for the first time. "I do pastoral support in one-to-one sessions," says Anibaba. "This helps prevent the line managers being bogged down with it, allowing them to get on with their work."

This pastoral work can be challenging, says Anibaba. "Some of it can be expectation management. A number have come in thinking they will just be working on sexy projects like HS2, but they have to get used to the idea that there is a lot of routine, day-to-day stuff that they also have to do."

Time is also spent helping existing managers realise the benefits of the programme, adds Anibaba. "We have had to take quite a lot of time to talk to managers so they see the graduates as a benefit, not a drain," she says.

Birmingham City Council development officer Sanya Imran, a graduate on the scheme, suggests that the benefits of this work are tangible. "I think the more senior staff now see the graduates as being quite vital," she says.

Altogether, the scheme has seen the recruitment of 64 graduates to the department since its inception in 2015, including 35 working on planning applications or planning policy. "It has achieved the ambition we set out to achieve," says Craig Rowbottom, development planning manager at the council. "A number of the graduates have achieved promotion in the council, but we’ve also had some who have gone to other jobs both in public sector agencies and the private sector, so it has been bringing more people into the planning profession."

Each graduate on the programme is also assigned an external mentor in the private sector. Another graduate, Matthew Berresford, has been assigned to a planning consultant in the city. He says: "It helps to get the perspective of the private sector and think about what you might do later in your career."

Graduates are given a broad range of experience during their two years. Berresford is on the policy team and has been helping them work on a policy for houses in multiple occupation in the emerging development management local plan document. He says his next step will be going into development management. The scheme is now bedding down and Anibaba says it has brought a "breath of fresh air" into the participating teams.

"Lots of graduates come with new ideas to do the things we normally do, but do them better," she adds. "They also have brought ideas about how to do things differently with our partners. Having the additional resource has also allowed us to look properly at some projects that had maybe been on the back burner."

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