Employers are working hard to retain young planners with Sydney and Melbourne still in the grip of a planner shortage, according to the Planning Institute of Australia.

Chief executive David Williams said approximately 60 to 70 planning jobs were advertised each fortnight on the PIA jobs bulletin with at least 50 of those planners sought in NSW and Victoria.

“Retaining young planners is proving to be tricky,” he said.

The PIA has noticed that many planners are leaving the profession at the 5-10-year mark.

“We hear anecdotally that young people are looking to enjoy multiple careers and being quite relaxed about building on one career to leverage off and launch into another.

“So that career mobility might just be a reflection of society.”

However, Mr Williams also noted that workplace practices vary a lot.

“The values and the purpose of an organisation has always been important but is now even more important as a motivator for people to commit themselves to an organisation as employees,” he said.

“I[Values are] the energiser and motivator, which keeps people attracted and part of an organisation.”

Supporting staff who are new parents, trying to pursue elite sport, or who want to serve in the charity sector is imperative.

“That’s how you demonstrate the values of where you rank people versus profit versus purpose outcomes,” he said. “You have to be seen to do that if you want to retain staff in the longer term.”

Beth McGuinness, director of people and culture at JBA, said the recruitment market across Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane was tight and highly competitive.

“Sydney, in particular, has been challenging to recruit across all levels and disciplines, particularly at the mid-senior levels, due to a booming property sector and competitive market,” she said.

“Organisations in this space are doing what they can to keep good people – competitive pay, incentives, reward and recognition initiatives, etcetera.

“Our more recent experience in the Melbourne and Brisbane markets, although tight, has been easier to recruit, reflecting the level of activity within those markets.”

Ms McGuinness said retaining talented people was something that required actively paying attention to what people were saying and doing across the national business, and working out where improvements could be made.

“Our high retention rate is due to our strategic approach to people,” she said. “We really try to focus on the things that matter to people at a basic level.”

This includes a supportive environment with access to mentors, working with individuals to achieve career growth, and pursuing exciting and challenging projects.

“At the same time, providing a level of flexibility so that people can organise their busy lives in a way that works for them,” she said. “Meeting the range of needs that people bring to the workplace is key to organisational durability within a highly competitive market.”

Young planners able to move up more quickly

Nicola Smith, director of boutique consultancy Niche Planning Studio in Melbourne, said finding planners was still “near impossible”.

As a result, young planners are moving up the tree more quickly.

Nicola Smith, Niche Planning Studio.

“A lot of young people are being made seniors because of the lack of planners in the industry and consultancies trying to get people on board,” she said. “That’s been really telling. We’ve tried really hard not to do that but to make people feel like they have worked for where they are at and progress up.”

Instead, Niche works hard to create a strong culture and flexible workplace.

“All my staff, there’s seven of them, have all worked for me from the time of employment – as soon as they’ve started, they have continued to stay with me,” she said.

Planners at Niche are offered a free weekly fitness class “Fit-Niche” and $1000 to put towards a personal course each year.

“They all work really hard; they are all go-getter-type people,” Ms Smith said. “I wanted to show them that life is about that work-life balance.”

The incentive has enabled staff to study and/or extend personal interests such as learning Chinese, surfing, diving and life coaching.

“All of these things – it sounds as though we are throwing money to the wind – but it’s actually quite good,” Ms Smith said. “A lot of it is directly relatable to planning and the other part is about them relaxing, which means they are more efficient in their job anyway.”

Young planners are encouraged to read from Niche’s extensive library of self-development books, then discuss the ideas over coffee – three books and they’re entitled to Gold Class movie tickets.

The company also provides coffee at the café downstairs as an incentive to take breaks away from the computer.

“I encourage them to have meetings down there and work from there too. It makes for a young, funky approach to business,” Ms Smith said.

Strong demand affecting recruiting and retaining

Steve Dunn, lead director urban renewal at the Victorian Planning Authority, said recruiting and retaining planners was a problem due to strong demand.

However, the Victorian statutory authority provides structured graduate programs, work placements and university lectures to build experience and networks for young planners.

They currently have four young planners undertaking a 12-month paid graduate program.

“We offer them the opportunity to work on a range of different projects in the inner city and the greenfield fringes of Melbourne and regional Victoria,” he said. “The opportunity to work with teams offers them a really good grounding and helps to develop their skills.”

The VPA has a close relationship with the University of Melbourne and RMIT, regularly presenting lectures to undergraduates and masters students. It has also offered 60-day work placements for RMIT students for the past 10 years.

“They get experience on their CV,” Mr Dunn said. “They get to know us and we get to know them.

“If positions come up they can apply; in some cases, we have created positions because we see the value they have added.”

Mr Dunn said planners are encouraged to choose a professional body and the VPA pays for their membership.

“We have 25 members of the PIA, which has good access to networking, information, presentations and seminars,” he said. “For young people coming in, it offers a lot of support; a great way to be informed.”

Involve young planners in the defining issues of our time

Norma Shankie-Williams, strategic planning team leader at Willoughby City Council, said involving young planners in the issues that define the times goes a long way to attracting and retaining them in the profession.

“Young planners are hungry for involvement in the issues that define our times and are shaping our future such as climate change, city growth, affordable housing, sustainable transport, social infrastructure, and community health and wellbeing,” she said.

“They want to be part of the thinking, the shaping and the implementation of future policy as it’s their future in the making.

“Making sure young planners, starting out and in the early years of their careers, are involved in these debates, confirms that their voices need to be heard and their ideas are valued.”

According to Ms Shankie-Williams, it’s important to provide a diversity of experience enabling young planners to appreciate the process of translating policy to what is delivered on the ground.

“Specialised career streams such as place-making and urban design, transport planning and social planning let young planners follow an area of particular interest,” she said.

“Exposing young planners to new opportunities, allowing them to attend conferences and seminars to further their exposure to new approaches and ideas, help maintain interest and job satisfaction.”

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  1. I started as a young planner 20 years ago and came from working for myself. There are problems with workplaces and lack of flexibility (but they will be fixed over time as workers vote with their feet). People like Nicola are leading the way and others will follow (even State or local government).
    The real problem is the codification of planning controls and the significantly decreasing ability to affect and beneficial change in both assessments and planning control.
    It would be timely for PIA to review its 2004 National Inquiry into Planning Employment and Education to see what, if anything, has changed.

  2. I wonder whether this is just symptomatic of society in general? When I started almost 25 years ago, straight out of uni into local government, we knew that we were not going to get $80k a year jobs with company cars and working on every major project around. Instead, we worked our way up from the little stuff – the DAs for front fences and car ports and minor additions. Maybe we’d do a DA for a dual occ when we demonstrated competency and we had some very experienced mentors around in the form of the Seniors, Deputy and Chief Town Planner (a very hands-on planner).

    We didn’t get everything handed to us on a platter and probably all of my colleagues from in those early years are still around as planners. You didn’t dare call yourself a Senior just because you had 5 years up your sleeve doing DAs. I left local govt after 10 years and went into the private sector because I had gone stale – I was sick of the “computer says no” rhetoric of local govt and I wanted to be a part of the solution, not finding problems in those solutions. I also eventually tried my hand at a couple of other relevant sectors including project management and environmental planning/ management, community engagement and general management, moved interstate to a different system, worked for several different sized firms in the private sector, and went back into local govt (BIG mistake! It was even more broken than when I had left), eventually going back to a multi-role position in the private sector again.

    It’s quite possible that the profession hasn’t been able to convey to younger planners what diversity there is in the world of planning. I often moved jobs when I got bored or my career progression was blocked by “lifers” who wanted to stay put. Perhaps it’s also the general mobility that is now available and associated pay scales. When I started, a select few went overseas to the UAE or England. Now, I think its much easier and there seems to be more of the large global firms present in Australia. It would be interesting to see what the salary expectations for planners are across the industry as well as where those planners leaving the profession are going to.

  3. Interesting article. I applaud firms like Niche and agencies who provide flexibility and provide incentives to staff in an attempt to retain good people.

    Appreciate younger planners are seeking diversity in career. I wonder why? Is it that the planning profession (generally) through constant legislative changes and its attempts to react to assessment etc we have lost the ‘generalists’ in our profession. These days the planner’s responsibilities and roles have been boxed into disciplines or narrow streams, particularly in government.

    Specialised into narrow paths that offer little diversification in career – young planners become impatient and are seeking diversity and flexibility. Discontentment breeds, they move on. PIA as an organisation perhaps needs to take more of a focus on this and advocate for diversity in roles. A challenge. PIA, whilst in a challenging position as a member organisation has remained silent on how the profession has evolved and perhaps advocated narrow streams through previous initiatives. It is now perhaps coming back to haunt the profession, as we now see in southern states.

    Organisational culture is so important for any profession. PIA doesn’t really advocate in this space as such. Can it? Should it?

    There is a body of work already undertaken in the mid 2000s with the skills shortages across the professsion – much work and solutions suggested. I’d like to see PIA get more proactive in the marketplace, partnering with industry and government to promote workplace cultures that support the profession, but appreciate it is not a core role of the professional body at this point in time.

  4. I’m a senior planner who decided to hang up my boots early. Despite the fine team culture where I worked, I tired of waiting for scarce opportunities to really make a real difference, and wanted new challenges.

  5. When it says “young planners leaving in droves” it’s talking about leaving the profession by the sound of it – not just changing organisations. Hence what the company is offering is not the factor (it might be to retain staff at that company but not in that career). I am a planner in that 5-10 yr mark and I dream of what I could career change to. The reason – the stuffy process where you end up justifying impact, not being able to make change, getting pushed on the time frame so that good solutions are not achieved, onerous documents that no one can get through and a lack of innovation because the law/contracts/thinking/money doesn’t allow for it. Additionally, too many people in the wider construction industry still see us as tick box exercise, do not take it seriously and do not involve you at the time when you can make a real change. This is changing though.

    We need to re-think the way we plan. The way we did it in 1979 doesn’t really work for how we work today, the technological opportunities available and the way in which people receive information and engage with what’s going on around them.

  6. As a ‘young’ planner, it feels like you are theoretically where the action is when it comes to solving the issues for cities and places – but it is different when you’re on the inside. Personally, I’m trying to diversify into projects to be involved in urban issues, and not stuck in planning (which in practice, feels very limiting). PS I work in state govt

  7. Interesting article about young planners but no comment from young planning professionals themselves? They’re not that endangered are they?