I received a request last week from a reader about the job market for urban planners and GIS Techs in Texas. Two things before I attempt to answer: First, thank you for the question and for reading my meager blog ;); and secondly, please note that I am merely giving my opinion. There are others in the field who would be much more qualified than me to give input on this!
Generally, Texas is no different from any other location. Figuring out where people network and whose-who is of course the best way to plug yourself into the scene. Take notice though that just like other places, if you went to a local school you’re more likely to be plugged in by default. It became abundantly clear that making connections here was going/still can be much more challenging than where I went to school. There’s no context for me here… and so us outsiders have the added responsibility to provide that context to others.
You may however want to keep in perspective the old-school, car-centric, suburban-loving nature of Texas. There are some dated schools of thought about how Texas – how Dallas – should grow, and those thoughts don’t necessarily correlate to modern realities. Sometimes this leads to rather watered down products. It’s not entirely anyone’s fault per say; an entrenched culture being challenged by all of us transplants makes for one confusing message. It’s just that I don’t think that Dallas really knows what it wants to stand for yet and so its physical environment can’t reflect much more than a bottom line. I say all of this because transplant planners from more established areas of the country – perhaps stereotypically more progressive thinking areas – may see projects that go against the practicality of your prior experience or schooling. Just a thought.
Overall there are a few things you should understand about any planning-related job market, regardless of the location.
1. Public Sector
The public sector may often get overlooked by young professionals due to its fairly apt reputation as a stuffy, entrenched, and even austere work environment, but it shouldn’t. (I should note that there are some communities that are less rigid than others and that if you are considering a government job, ask around about the work environment before accepting a job offer.) I believe every young professional should start their career with a year or two in a government sector planning/GIS job. While I personally stayed way too long in the public sector I did learn a great deal about the planning and development process… and I have noticed my counterparts who haven’t spent any time in the public sector can have unrealistic expectations for what can or cannot be implemented. What good is a beautiful development plan if you don’t know if – or how – it can actually be built?
Additionally during weaker economic times, there is an increased opportunity – in fact, need – for the public sector to get creative with their long-range planning efforts. When building slows or ceases all together, this is a unique time for the public sector to refocus their vision for their communities’ futures. While a weaker economy may not allow for these communities to add more staff, it does allow for the existing staff to showcase their knowledge and skills. You may find a good home in the public sector because of it.
2. Private Sector
On the flip side, the private sector too has its pros and cons. On the positive side, the private sector is typically where all the “pretty” plans get made and studies get done. The reasons for this are less important here than to understand that you’ll get great experience from going this route. However, with many different companies bidding on the same jobs this means that it can be severely competitive and demand a lot of hours… and that those hours don’t always equate to your charged hourly rate. Too, your work satisfaction is dependent upon the level of support and creativity on your assigned team. If you get put on a team that doesn’t fit the bill (or on a client who could care less about anything other than their bottom line), you may start dreading your work day.
3. Personal Expectations
Managing your personal expectations is huge when entering the field. School sets us up for great success and yet expectation failure at the same time. While we come out with an understanding of planning principles and perhaps GIS or Adobe Suite skills too, we most often have never applied a school project within the confines of zoning codes or other federal and state regulations. School does us a disservice in this way. We basically come out illiterate to an extent.
Here’s what many of us come to expect leaving school: Working with a community that is as equally excited and engaged as we are to make improvements and who will fall in love with our studies, plans, drawings, etc., and it’ll just happen. As GIS and planning professionals, we make enticing representations of what could/will be and everyone is pumped and ready to go. Here’s what actually happens: A community voicing concerns over needed improvements are often not the ones who actually need it the most. Participation no matter the socio-economic level is lack luster at best and what is even more dicey is the fragile level of investment, both public and private alike. Developers will often come in with a product that neither fits the community’s desires or the city’s codes, and so a strange little dance occurs for months, even years, to get to a solution that upsets the least amount of people. Why this is important to know: While I may have exaggerated the above to a degree, entry-level planners need to know this field is hard and that means you won’t be jumping out of school onto some mega master plan the likes of Daniel Burnham. You WILL have to read through boring code and you WILL have to figure out how to make a project work within the confines of those codes…not to mention public disagreement. Get literate. Too, learn negotiation skills and how to navigate different social situations if you don’t know how to already. At the end of the day, any deal is based on how comfortable the people across the table are from one another.
I hope this helps answer your question. Have a great week!