Be prepared to go to Kansas. By this I mean that there are certain places much loved by young planners-New York, Boston, San Francisco-and these are not the best places to start looking for early planning jobs. Sure they have them. For low pay. Where you'll find yourself at the very bottom of the totem pole with years of photocopying ahead of you before you make it to the zoning counter. If, however, you are prepared to move somewhere more out of the way you can get terrific experience far faster and rise up the planning ranks. You can also make a difference in the lives of people who need planners more than the over-supplied planning markets. The APA conference job fair is a good source for such jobs each year. Remember, you don't have to stay in your first job, or even your first job location, forever. Though you just might find you quite like Kansas.Use your ordinary work experience to get a leg up. I have recently had a stream of undergraduates through my doors concerned that they won't be able to get the perfect, resume-building internship in an exotic foreign country doing high level work. The good news is that employers of entry-level plannners are typically looking for something much simpler. Combined with your planning coursework, a summer job in a factory or on a farm may build those skills better than a "make work" internship, no matter how high-powered the letterhead of the organization. Employers for first real jobs want to know if you will turn up at work on time, focus your attention on what you are being paid to do, show flexibility in what you are willing to take on, demonstrate good judgment about how you spend your day, get on with co-workers, share credit, learn from mistakes, and be basically honest. These might not be evident in an internship where the supervision is loose and your work is largely alone-you may be better off with paid work and some evidence of planning interest from your activism and coursework. For graduate students, work in planning shows commitment to the field. Undergraduates, however, need to show they have basic office skills and a job in the campus coffee shop can be a big advantage in doing that.
Look to alumni networks in related fields. Planning occurs in public, nonprofit, and private settings. Many of the biggest private firms employing planners are headed by folks from related fields such as engineering and architecture. You may not think of the engineers on campus as your greatest allies but from off-campus they may well see you as a fellow alumnus first. In big design schools, like mine, commercially successful architecture alumni may have received insufficient recognition from their own home departments; as a planner you can help them feel appreciated for their large impact on the world.
Remember, a first job is just a starting point. Certainly as a planner you will hope to make the world a better place with everything you do but even the most high-powered planners start somewhere.
This is my February post delayed by illness. Upcoming posts will look at the planning internships and planning careers more generally.