A profession with a reputation for being dominated by technical types and constrained by cash shortages and overbearing politicians is unlikely to be an enticing prospect for students pondering their future.
But that is exactly the problem faced by the transport planning profession, according to latest research from the Transport Planning Skills Initiative (TPSI). A report published last week (Planning, 21 November, p3) offers a further stark warning that transport planning is in dire need of an image revamp if it is to redress the skills shortage that threatens to undermine the government's transport programme.
Transport planning, like its land-use counterpart, is experiencing serious recruitment problems. The report puts this into context by predicting that many of the priorities of local, regional and national government will be undeliverable if the situation is not improved.
The TPSI accepts that one of the reasons for this is the profession's image problem. Those working in the trade are concerned by the professional identity issue. The lack of a separate transport planning institute, an uncertain career path and difficulty in recruiting staff are all symptoms, it warns.
"There is real concern about the lack of a strong identity for transport planning as a profession and of clear career paths," according to the report. "Undergraduates have a poor perception, seeing it as being dominated by men in suits, nerdy and likely to be frustrating because of public sector financial constraints and political influences."
So the need for transport planning to rebrand itself is clear. There is both good and bad news. Transport planners' experience of their job is overwhelmingly positive, the research confirms. Transport Planning Society members are happy with their career choice, with 85 per cent saying that they are either very satisfied or satisfied.
The bad news is that efforts to improve the image of transport planning are hindered by the fact that there is no single institution for the profession with a remit to boost its gravitas. The five or six other institutes that have a foothold in transport planning all have other more dominant interests, the report points out.
"It is clear that neither transport planners nor their employers see any one of these as being particularly appropriate," it declares. "There is a call from employers for the establishment of a common transport planning route to chartered membership."
Not everyone necessarily agrees. Links between the RTPI and the transport planning profession are good, claims Jim Claydon of the University of the West of England. "There is close working between the RTPI transport planning panel and the transport institutions," he says. "But there is a need for a clear voice for transport planning."
The shortage of transport planners shows no signs of abating. According to the report, 84 per cent of employers have tried to recruit in the past year and 89 per cent of these have experienced difficulty, especially in trying to appoint staff with three to eight years' experience.
The report points to the following actions taken by employers:
- Using consultants for specific contracts (57 per cent).
- Recruiting inexperienced staff (52 per cent).
- Recruiting staff with a less relevant skill set (46 per cent).
- Increasing recruitment activities (36 per cent).
But only 31 per cent of employers have improved pay and conditions as a result of recruitment problems, while five per cent have taken no action at all.
The nature of the job is changing and key skills for transport planners are likely to be as much an ability to communicate, work with other people and being politically aware as having a sound grip of transport policy.
Transport Planning Skills Initiative: Researching the Profession is available from Andy Costain (tel) 020 7348 1975.