October 23, 2021
Given the change of course that has happened in the world, we wanted to provide expert opinions on what aspiring graduates can do to start off their careers in an uncertain economic climate. We wanted to know what skills will be more important, where the economy is doing relatively well, and if there will be any lasting effects on the job market.
Companies are looking for candidates that can handle the new responsibilities of the job market. Recent graduates actually have an advantage because they are comfortable using newer technologies and have been communicating virtually their whole lives. They can take what they've learned and apply it immediately.
We spoke to professors and experts from several universities and companies to get their opinions on where the job market for recent graduates is heading, as well as how young graduates entering the industry can be adequately prepared. Here are their thoughts.
University of Utah
Bryn Mawr College
School for International Training
Portland State University
University of Oregon
Portland State University
The New School
SUNY College at Brockport
De Paul College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences
College of Arts and Sciences
Geoffrey Buckley: Experience in an internship looks really good on the resume. It can also be critical when it comes to lining up references. One of my students had "hands-on" local government experience thanks to an internship with the City of Athens Planner. This cemented her interest in a planning career and impressed the officials at the municipality that hired her. Two of my students participated in an urban sustainability-themed study away program in Edinburgh, Scotland. They were in the field often during this 5-week summer program, learning from experts in planning history and urban design. The experienced really sharpened their research, presentation, and team-building skills.
Geoffrey Buckley: One student attributed her being hired to having very good interviewing skills. She added that it was important to be "flexible and willing to learn,"; "motivated and a self-starter,"; and "interested in finding better ways of doing things and keeping up with projects." The students said that having good networking skills was valuable because you have to work with a variety of different people and groups, including directors, property owners, planning and zoning commissioners, city council members, private firms, city managers, and mayors.
Geoffrey Buckley: GIS (especially ArcPro), Microsoft applications (especially Excel), and familiarity with video conference technology (especially zoom, Teams, and WebEx) are key. MyPermitNow, Municode, and Legistar also are useful. One student took an Excel class at Ohio University, and that prepared her well for her first job.
Geoffrey Buckley: Proficiency in GIS is a big plus.
Department of Environmental Studies
Bruce Stephenson Ph.D.: Project portfolio.
Bruce Stephenson Ph.D.: Writing clarity, integration of disciplines, quality presentations that illustrate a project.
Bruce Stephenson Ph.D.: GIS and Sketch Up are important.
Bruce Stephenson Ph.D.: Creating an art form integrating points two and three. I would suggest visiting the Dover-Kohl project website, which includes a project at Rollins and Winter Park. https://www.doverkohl.com/all-projects
University of Utah
Department of City and Metropolitan Planning
Alessandro Rigolon: - Professional experience, including internships, before graduation. In today's market, a master's degree is almost a must for planning. So, either having one/two internships during the master's degree or having worked as a planner (or related area) before the master's helps greatly. Many jobs require some experience (entry-level positions are somewhat rare, based on what my former students are telling me).
- Capacity to work with people in allied fields, such as landscape architecture, architecture, transportation engineering, and others. Some planning projects are multi-disciplinary. Also, public agency planners are often building permit applications, which means they need to be conversant in reading site plans, building plans, etc.
- The American Institute of Certified Planner (AICP) membership might also help. To get such membership, the easiest route is to get a master's degree at an accredited institution (like the U of Utah) and then take an exam after a year of professional experience.
Alessandro Rigolon: - Working with others collaboratively (including people from other fields)
- Communicating with residents and elected officials effectively
- Dealing with conflict among different interest groups during planning processes (e.g., developers vs. environmentalists). Conflict arises quite often, both for specific projects (e.g., a proposed development) and citywide plans (e.g., affordable housing plan).
- Developing and maintaining relationships and trust with community-based organizations, which often support community engagement activities for projects and plans
- Being committed to equity and inclusion
- Being able to work across political jurisdictions (e.g., for projects or plans spanning more than one city)
Alessandro Rigolon: - Geographic Information Systems
- Basic statistical skills
- Some graphic design expertise, including the use of Adobe InDesign, Illustrator, and/or Photoshop. Also, ArcGIS StoryMaps are increasingly used by planning agencies to share ongoing results of planning processes
- Some skills in platforms to collect online data for public engagement process, such as ArcGIS Survey123
- Some of the above skills related to applied fields (e.g., architecture), like reading site plans and building plans
- More rarely, AutoCAD and other similar Computer-Aided Design programs
- Good writing is really important but sometimes overlooked
- Capacity to design and manage complex public engagement processes, some of which might last more than one year
Alessandro Rigolon: Many jobs are in public agencies, so they use a pay scale based on degrees and years of experience. To that extent, years of experience matter. Some places might also count the AICP certification in that pay scale.
Gary McDonogh Ph.D.: Obviously we are only beginning to understand changes in the job market shaped by cuts in funding for public services and shifts of interest into emergency areas like public health (which also demands long-term change encompassing planning, architecture, education and other fields). Rebuilding will be slow and students may move through several positions--including unpaid internships and non-professional positions--in order to find their best career.
Yet, the pandemic also faces us with far reaching challenges in the city itself to be met by new generations--from mass transportation to education to communication that will open new opportunities for graduates helping us to re-envision cities and the skills we need to deal creatively with urban issues.
Gary McDonogh Ph.D.: Graduates need breadth and flexibility coupled with clear critical communicative skills. Within a liberal arts framework, we encourage students to avoid narrow professionalism and to explore the city widely, from architecture to computer skills and media. The key to the future will be the ability to envision problems in new ways, to find and analyze data and to provide/communicate cogent guidelines for politicians, planners and wider publics. No skill set is valuable unless the graduate knows how to communicate it to multiple audiences so writing and presentation are always important.
Gary McDonogh Ph.D.: Experience in internships will always be good (and provide connections). So is completion of a substantial project, whether design or social research, provides a foundation for conversation (even interviews) and an edge as new tasks emerge in the workplace.
School for International Training
Sustainable Development department
Dr. Alyson Dagang Ph.D.: We will see a greater demand for workers with backgrounds in and knowledge of sustainability. At the same time, there will be expanded interest in workers with multidisciplinary backgrounds, particularly fusing the fields of public health and sustainability, human resources and sustainability, sustainability and wellness, and sustainability and the rural-urban interface. Given the events of 2020, there will also be strong demand for workers with skills in outreach, communication, and community development.
Dr. Alyson Dagang Ph.D.: I recommend taking the time to learn to communicate well in a language other than English. Demand is high for workers with strong second- or third-language skills and is growing. There are many opportunities for internships outside the U.S. where graduates can learn a new language and/or a new skill.
In the last 5-10 years, we have seen undergraduates graduate with sub-par writing skills. I recommend classes on writing and professional communication or self-directed experiences for writing improvement. At some universities, writing centers offer services to alumni.
Technology is key for any career path. Considering the wide net the sustainability field casts, skills in data analysis as well as emerging technologies in energy, transportation, and traceability (wood, contaminants, food, endangered species, many others) will be important for graduates to have on their tool belts.
Dr. Alyson Dagang Ph.D.: I would recommend to graduates to not be hurried. They are starting a new journey; however, there will be many journeys. It is important to enjoy each journey as well as engage in service during all journeys. Hone their leadership skills and soft skills as these are skills they will need on every journey. Don't be afraid to change paths when the signs are leading you in a different direction. If you start a new path, leave a trail of positive experiences and interactions to ensure that you will have contacts and a network to call on for professional support. Entrepreneurial skills can be helpful and applied to any job or endeavor. Don't be afraid to take good risks; don't be afraid to fail. The best growth can come from failure; and there will always be a new journey ahead.
Dr. Aaron Golub: A good share of urban planners work in the public sector, which has been decimated by the decline in tax revenues and federal bail-out support. Until the new stimulus rounds include state and local governments, urban planning jobs are going to be cut to just a few new openings. I don't have the numbers, but I assume the job market is down. The last recession also had a big impact on jobs like planning, which rely on tax revenues.
Dr. Aaron Golub: Public engagement and communication skills, project management, skills in understanding and engaging with diverse communities, graphic design and visual communication skills, written communication, GIS, excel and quantitative analysis, survey and interview skills.
Dr. Aaron Golub: Generally areas which spend (taxing or bonding) a lot on infrastructure or who are experiencing rapid growth will have a significant need for professional urban planners. A look at local or regional bond measures for transportation over the past five years would be a good way to find where there is significant development happening and where planners will be needed.
Daniel Trudeau: The economic contraction accompanying the pandemic will put some short-term restraint on state- and local-level government spending, which will affect hiring and perhaps retention in these governments concerning their planning and analysis services. Governments will continue to perform facilities management and regulatory services, though these will not be areas of growth for the next 12 to 18 months.
This may lead to more opportunities for employment in private consulting groups. Remote work in these settings seems poised to continue as the status quo for the foreseeable future, though this will decrease over time - but not disappear altogether. Given the policy aims and Keynesian tendencies of the incoming Biden administration, I expect an ambitious and sustained program of spending from the federal government that will prioritize investment in infrastructure and regulation related to climate change adaptation. Most of the hiring associated with this spending will be located in the private sector and will fall to the most entrepreneurial actors.
Daniel Trudeau: Accumulating experience in leadership skills (decision making, project management, communication, team building) is worthwhile because these are universally valued in work and non-work settings. You don't have to work in a supervisory role to get experience with these skills either. People can gain leadership experience through volunteer work, peer mentoring, as well as through employment opportunities. I recommend connecting with organizations in which you are or have been involved to create an opportunity (a specific role, for a specific time) to work on one or more leadership skills.
Daniel Trudeau: Make the most of whatever opportunities you have. Keep in mind that wherever you start, it does not predict where you will end up. The average person makes several career changes during their lifetime and so there's no drawback to starting your career doing work that you may not envision as something you will do long term. Whatever you choose to do at the start, do your work well, reliably, and with integrity. These attributes are highly sought after and will help you as you move to new positions, employers, and/or careers. Lastly, who you know matters, but who knows you matters more. Invest time and energy to cultivate relationships with supervisors and mentors who can help you grow and vouch for your capabilities as you chart your path into the future.
Linda Zimmer: This is anyone's guess. Many firms remained busy during the pandemic, from what I was hearing, but were reluctant to bring inexperienced designers on while everyone was working from home. Several of my students had "soft offers" of jobs from internship experiences in winter and early spring, and firms could not follow through by summer.
If the economy returns to normal, I expect that our graduates who did not find work last summer will be working or pursuing other prospects by spring; however, the apparent danger is that if design firms are idle for too long, new graduates (and laid off recent graduates) gravitate to other fields and don't want to or can't afford to restart design careers.
This happened in the 2008 recession. Within five years, design firms that talked to us reported that they had a generational hole of 5-7 year talent that was problematic. They joked about recruiting the "unicorns" of that generation, which remained a problem for an extended time.
Linda Zimmer: One of the exciting things about universities going remote is that graduating students have developed expertise in virtual presentation and communication skills and have been using "teaming" tools in the design studio/courses - our students have become quite adept. This year's group has the advantage of knowing these new tools and navigating remotely - it appears that this will be an ongoing way to do business post-pandemic. Self-direction and self-learning have been enhanced, and the flexibility gained will undoubtedly be an advantage. "Tool use," such as Revit, is essential in the short run, but has a short half-life, so I expect firms will continue to value talent and critical thought and process.
Linda Zimmer: Our school offers a range of concurrent degrees (architecture + interior architecture), minors, specializations, and the like. We have found that the combination of architecture and interior architecture is highly sought after by firms for the versatility of skills and projects that these new designers can take. I expect that adaptive reuse will grow as we figure out what to do with empty offices, storefronts, etc., so these and other hybrid designers will continue to be sought after. Projects and experiences listed on a resume stand out by way of depth of inquiry or individual initiative. Past students have had firms respond in super positive ways to part-time work at the university to revamp/redesign signage, help with user focus groups, and immersive design-build projects.
Laird Christensen Ph.D.: Preparing students for life in a time of climate crisis means, in some cases, training them for jobs that don't even exist yet. We've already seen this, in recent years, with agencies suddenly looking for Resilience Analysts, Global Climate Change Liaisons, and Climate Equity Coordinators. So we need to provide an evolving set of skills and knowledge that prepares our graduates, not only for positions like these, but for whatever the next essential profession turns out to be. Whether students end up working in mitigation or adaptation, resilience planning, or community organizing, there are some foundational skills that I believe they can count on.
In our MS program, this begins with understanding the science of climate change and how to anticipate locally specific needs, based on what climate models suggest about the road ahead. We make sure that students know how to measure progress toward sustainability and resilience; that they acquire the skills needed to engage a range of stakeholders as a part of policy development; that they learn to integrate lessons about energy, food systems, land-use policies, and social equity by applying what they learn locally, on the ground. It's a lot easier to transpose lessons from one community to another than to struggle to apply concepts that have been learned only in the abstract.
Beyond that foundation, some students choose from skills-based courses such as GIS and Resilient Infrastructure and Transportation Systems, while others may be better served by developing their chops in Grant Writing or Alternative Dispute Resolution. We adjust our courses to stay relevant as circumstances change: not only are lessons from the coronavirus being incorporated into courses like Community Health and Emergency Management and Communication, but even our Ecological Design course has begun asking students to reimagine and plan public spaces for a world in which pandemics are likely to become more common. If you want to know what skills are going to be essential, just keep an eye on the news and ask, "What would I need to know to be most useful here?"
Laird Christensen Ph.D.: It's hard to imagine any place that is not beginning to recognize the challenges coming our way as the climate crisis worsens. Perhaps, the need for better planning will be most obvious in coastal areas threatened by rising sea levels, to communities out West where wildfires now demand different ideas about development in the urban-wildland interface, or along the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Coastal Plain where the hurricanes are only going to intensify. But we will all need to adapt to changing weather patterns and the way that plays out, whether we're talking about the impact of ocean acidification on fisheries, the impact of fewer snowy days on the ski industry in Vermont, or the city of Phoenix spending over a third of the year sweltering at over 100 degrees.
The program I direct is designed to help students recognize the challenges facing their own communities, and to identify regional agencies and organizations that are positioned to play a role in addressing those challenges. There's nothing necessarily wrong with relocating across the country for an exciting position, but one part of developing more sustainable behaviors is the practice of mindful inhabitation in a place, understanding the deep history and local ecological conditions that will help us imagine what sustainable human communities might look like as the twenty-first century unfolds. My graduate students often struggle to find some balance as they become aware of just how many different challenges their communities are facing, from food insecurity to lack of green spaces, from unsustainable transportation practices to systemic inequality in municipal policies and practices. I tell them to latch on to whichever challenge evokes in them the strongest need to respond and not to dilute their power by trying to solve too many problems at once. We need to trust that someone else will feel just as passionate about some of those other challenges, and we can support them as allies while doing the work we are called to do.
Laird Christensen Ph.D.: Earlier in my career, I seriously underestimated the pace of technological advances, particularly in the energy sector. But, like many others, I also underestimated the pace at which we would go careening past the warning signs that urged us to lower our carbon emissions and the environmental consequences that have resulted. So there is no shortage of work to be done. Some graduates will focus on mitigating human impacts through smarter energy production and distribution, less damaging transportation systems and smarter urban planning, developing better materials such as bioplastics and alternative cement, and new approaches to conserving resources and energy. Others will do the necessary work of helping us adapt to the changes already in motion: much of this will be resilience planning in response to severe weather, rising sea levels, depletion of freshwater--not to mention the need for infrastructure and policy that helps us prepare for tens of millions of climate migrants. For a thorough and revealing overview of emerging technologies, check out the resources at Project Drawdown.
But for every technological innovation, we need to foster an evolution in social norms and begin to develop underlying cultural values suited to the age of climate crisis. It may be more appealing to imagine a future that is just a continuation of the comfortable lives that some of us have had the privilege to lead--but the underlying challenges of transforming to more sustainable behaviors require us to develop models of self-esteem not rooted in material consumption, and to engage in community practices that enable a sense of belonging and mutual support that is not available from either the state or the market. As excited as we may be by the latest technological fix brought to us by biomimicry, we're just putting bandaids on the otherwise terminal disease of unsustainable inhabitation until we learn to value sufficiency over abundance, to develop empathy across cultures and species, and to create economic and social models based on reciprocity and gratitude. This is the cultural dimension of environmental planning.
Connie Ozawa Ph.D.: Think about what impact you want to have on your community, and then be open about what job titles might help you to achieve it. Planning graduates successfully obtain jobs at public agencies, non-profit organizations, and private planning firms at the local, state, regional, and federal level. Treat your first job as your first - you may stay there the rest of your working life, or you may move on after a year. Don't hold out for the "perfect job." With a positive attitude and a spirit of inquiry and discovery, you'll learn through doing the work what excites you and the type of colleagues and organizations that will provide the most fulfilling environment for you.
Connie Ozawa Ph.D.: This is dangerous territory for me to comment on as a planner who focuses more on the people than the technologies we use to conduct in our work. However, I suspect drones will become more frequently used to photograph physical features of land and buildings. And, with the covid-19 pandemic, we have learned to rely on virtual meetings. Due to convenience, this technology is likely to remain a substantial part of our work lives, especially when conducting statewide or regional planning work as it reduces commute times, especially for rural representatives attending meetings in state capitals or distant, large cities.
Connie Ozawa Ph.D.: The salary range of master in planning graduates has varied substantially, from about $50k to $100k, with non-profit organizations at the low end and large private firms at the upper end, and depending on geographic location. One will rarely get rich on a planner's salary alone, but the intangible rewards can be enormous!
The New School
Department of Urban Studies
Robert von Mahs: How enduring the impact will fully depend on the government response and the ways we prepare for future epidemics and the pace with which the labor market returns to a modicum of normalcy. Urban Studies graduates - esp. those who specialize in planning and public administration - may actually have above-average chances to break into the labor market as new job opportunities pertaining to post-COVID planning and disaster planning and pandemic responses are opening up or are being created.
Robert von Mahs: The true value of an interdisciplinary course of study is that our graduates are not pigeonholed into very specific, prescribed, professional pathways. Our alumni have gone on to pursue successful careers in urban planning, government, law, non-profit management, social and community activism, historic preservation, environmental advocacy, real estate, journalism, publishing, education, and a range of private sector activities.
Robert von Mahs: Two technology-related areas with particular promise (and we encourage our students to pursue them) pertain to Geographic Information Systems and Data visualization that builds upon more general computer and IT literacy.
SUNY College at Brockport
Keith Baker Ph.D.: Graduates entering public service will find they are needed more than ever to deliver and maintain open and community services. However, funds will be scarce, competition for jobs ferocious, and public tolerance for error diminished. The skills, training, and experience of recent graduates in NASPAA Accredited Masters of Public Administration programs - such as SUNY Brockport - will help to secure organizational and personal success in the face of these challenges.
Alec Brownlow Ph.D.: My advice is, first, do not despair ... cities are going nowhere; nor are the professions associated with them (planning, governance, etc.). Cities still offer what other residential geographies (suburban, exurban, rural) do not and cannot - density, proximity, community, diversity, etc. These are still desirable elements in our assessment of the quality of life. However, as the COVID pandemic has demonstrated, some of these very qualities are now being looked at through a new lens; density, for example, is now a source of concern and vulnerability. Public transportation is being eyed as potential 'hot spots' of disease spread. There will be a 'new normal' in the entertainment landscape of restaurants, bars, clubs, museums, etc. Indoor venues are being eyed with suspicion, while outdoor venues are a potential growth pole. With all of this to consider - along with the fact that the old entrenched injustices and inequalities that have been part and parcel to the American city since its beginning 250 years ago are now, in the wake of George Floyd killing, spilling into the streets and garnering the unprecedented attention and participation of white people and communities - this is arguably a tipping point moment in the field of Urban Studies. Cities are going to change; cities must change; they are being demanded by people who live in cities where they change. The combined disciplines that constitute Urban Studies will be at the fore of reconsidering, reformulating, reenvisioning what cities will look like, what city planners, institutions, and political leaders must do, to ensure the viability of a safe, secure, and just urban landscape.
Alec Brownlow Ph.D.: No student interested in cities should fail to equip themselves with GIS skills (Geographical Information Systems - aka, digital mapping).
Alec Brownlow Ph.D.: So this is a bit of a different question than the enduring impact on the future of urban studies. This year's graduates find themselves in the grips of a downward spiraling economy and the reality of office closures and social distancing. The class of 2020 can be described as unprecedentedly 'remote.' Students/graduates should take this to heart, and do whatever they can to equip themselves (skills, training, technology, etc.) to be a competitor in a 'foreign' labor market. If working from home/remotely is the 'new normal,' at least for the foreseeable future, students who bemoan the situation will struggle when in competition with students who recognize and embrace it. GIS, for example, is a skill that does not require a physical location in an office. Familiarity with, and comfort in using, social interfaces (Zoom, WebX, etc.) is a must.