Defining the Planning Skill Set: Resources for Students

Ann Forsyth's picture
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At the beginning of semester students are signing up for classes and planning their degrees. Lately, a question I have been asked quite frequently is which classes will make new planners most employable? Students ask if computer aided design or GIS will be key. However, surveys of planning practitioners show that a far more basic set of skills is important-skills in communication, information analysis and synthesis, political savvy, and basic workplace competencies and attitudes.

Below, I highlight three of these studies from across three decades:

A 1976 Journal of the American Institute of Planners article, "Planners in Transition" by Donald A. Schon, Nancy Sheldon Cremer, Paul Osterman, and Charles Perry, was based on a survey of MIT Alumni from the 1960-1971 period. It found by far the most important skill was the "ability to produce clear reports, memos, news releases etc" followed by synthesizing materials, working with politicians, negotiating, understanding power relations, working with clients, formulating problems and plan how to answer questions, establishing trust with local groups, finding information, and discovering client needs. There were more skills listed, including some technical ones such as statistics and spatial design, but they ranked lower than these more general competencies.

Ethan Seltzer and Connie Ozawa's (2002) Journal of Planning Education and Research article titled "Clear Signals" was based on a survey of 310 planners in California, Florida, New Jersey, Minnesota, and Maryland. Focusing on the skills needed by new hires, planning practitioners again described the need for very general skills: working well with the public and with colleagues, being a self-starter, being able to finish work on time and on budget, and understanding public needs. The survey asked open ended questions about additional skills-- writing, public speaking, and a good attitude came out on top.

More recently Linda Dalton's (2007) Journal of the American Planning Association article, "Preparing Planners for the Breadth of Practice," reports on a survey of 681 planning alumni and members of planning organizations. Respondents were asked whether their work frequently or often involved certain activities. The top ranked activities were: prepare reports (95%), organize/run meetings (76%), public presentations (74%), client interaction (74%), collect data (66%), administer program/unit (65%), analyze data (62%), strategize to get plans adopted (60%). develop alternatives (60%), and read and prepare maps (60%).

These skills form the core of a basic planning skill set: communicating with others, analyzing information, working with politics and power relations, and working responsibly and energetically in the planning team. That is not to say that learning to create maps or use advanced statistical programs is unimportant-they are key sources of planning information-but beginning planners should not skip over the basic skills.

Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.

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