With the American Planning Association National Conference arriving in Los Angeles tomorrow, it's likely that more planners than usual will not just be attending lectures and idly networking but rather will be actively, and sometimes desperately, trying to remain in the profession.
Gov. Jerry Brown's decision to eliminate redevelopment agencies has not only sent cities into a frenzy and threatened thousands of projects, it also may be sending thousands of planners, and other land use professions, into a dismal job market. Although many planners are hanging on as staff for successor agencies, as 2012 progresses, many expect that competition for scarce planning jobs will grow ever more intense.
Just before redevelopment agencies had to shut down Feb. 1, the California Redevelopment Assoc. conducted a survey to roughly determine how many staff members of redevelopment agencies would be laid off.
"At the time, we estimated 2,500-3,000 employees of redevelopment agencies would be laid off as a result (of elimination)," said CRA interim executive director Jim Kennedy.
As recently as a year ago, redevelopment had appeared to be one of the most secure career paths for urban planners, even amid state- and city-level budget crises. The passage of Prop. 22 had ensured that agencies would be fully funded, until the governor and legislature eliminated them entirely. Many redevelopment planners are expected to seek refuge with municipal planning offices, but many of them have also downsized because of budget cuts.
"It's pretty financially constrained these days," said Kennedy. "We're not engaged in a high level of hiring activity. I would suspect that it's a buyer's market."
Ironically, the elimination of redevelopment could heighten the need for capable planners in cities across the state—if only cities had the money to hire them.
"Redevelopment helped fund many local services, including planning efforts for urban areas that were in the greatest need," said Kevin Keller, a planner with the Los Angeles Dept. of City Planning and president of the California Chapter of the American Planning Association. "The removal of this tool actually increases the need for planners to fill this void, but the public sector job market will likely remain flat for the immediate future."
In municipal planning departments, many planning functions that used to be conducted in-house are now being outsourced to private firms, meaning there are fewer permanent staff positions than ever.
"As governments have downsized, they're starting to look to more outside help for what they consider interim needs," said Phil Carter, president of PMC, a Rancho Cordova-based consulting and placement firm that specializes in public sector, land use-related careers.
Those jobs that are available may not be considered dream jobs. Many planning departments consider long-term planning and vision-setting positions to be the most expendable.
"We're seeing a continued slowdown in the demand by local government for certain types of planners, mostly those who are working on larger-scale design-type projects: urban landscapes or downtown plans," said Carter.
Meanwhile, Carter said that those jobs that are available tend to focus on relatively mundane administrative tasks, such as the processing of development applications.
The Los Angeles planning department is one of few agencies that intends to hire new employees in the foreseeable future. It may be an anomaly, however, because its funding is coming from grants rather than from sustained revenues or contributions from the city's general fund.
For planners on the job market, flexibility and geography may offer keys to success--as long as job-seekers are determined to remain in planning. Kenny Lousen, president of the Associated Students of Planning at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, said that some graduating students who have studied redevelopment have resigned themselves to exploring other lines of work.
"A lot of the students are focusing on whether they should go to grad school first or if they should start somewhere that's not their forte," said Lousen.
Eva Yuan-McDaniel, deputy director of planning at the Los Angeles planning department, said that lack of experience should not necessarily deter applicants. The department hires, in large part, according to an applicant's score on the city's civil service exam.
"You are not discriminated against just because you got out of school…or because you left school two decades ago," said Yuan-McDaniel.
In fact, graduating students may not, however, have the hardest time on the job market. Because applicants need to be flexible, Carter described something of a sweet spot for job seekers: a few years of experience, but not so much experience that they have committed to a particular function.
"Certainly someone with 3-5 years of a good urban planning background has a leg up on someone coming out of school," said Carter. "At the same time, we'll run into people who have been in the business for 10-15 years and they have locked themselves into a way of doing things that a younger person hasn't yet."
Even though redevelopment agencies had been located in cities throughout the state, Carter recommended that job seekers be willing to relocate to increase their chances of landing jobs. He noted that development activity is likely to pick up in cities far more quickly than it will in rural areas and in outlying areas that experienced housing booms in the early 2000s.
"There are huge geographic voids in the state," said Carter. "The more urban settings are more active."
Phil Carter, PMC, 866.828.6PMC
Kevin Keller, California Chapter, American Planning Association, www.calapa.org
Eva Yuan-McDaniel, Los Angeles Dept. of City Planning, 213.978.1244