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  • Jena Skinner, AICP

When business survival trumps your value as a planner

Last year I was "laid off" because my planning position was not generating enough money for the firm - an engineering firm.


What does a planner do? What does a planner offer? These are the fundamental questions and answers that you should be aware of when considering working for an engineering firm. First- we're not engineers. Second, don't treat us like engineers who can bill constantly.


What I discovered at this job - my first at an engineering firm, was that engineers can be easily be portrayed as money generators. They can sit and design continually through each day. Our days at this firm were 9 hours long at that. Yes, I discovered this engineering firms require a minimum of 45-hour work weeks, and this can be typical. Apparently, this is common, and I am still saddened that people are working their lives away like 3rd world factory workers with bathroom breaks. Ok, maybe second world factories. I wrongly assumed that all companies in 2018 value the employees and talent is rewarded with good leadership and life-balance. Unfortunately, I experienced neither at this firm. All the tasks that I did (non-billable) were not seen even as assets; rather, my skills were simply seen as useful, but not valued enough as a sufficient factory worker. But like I said, the firm I was at also did not offer leadership or life-balance either. They didn't fully understand what planners do and I was largely underutilized because of the fundamental difference between planners and engineers. I did more than just entitlement. I could also go after big money makers like master plans and code re-writes as we didn't do either presently...because it wasn't a billable activity. Interesting that they were trying to create a 'one-stop shop' for development in their verbal marketing and sales to clients and potential employees, but planning was recessed to the back of the shop, located on a small shelf in between the pencils and the erasers...


My employer thought entitlement was solely tied to zoning - rezones. They didn't get that any file to be submitted to a Planning office, had planning tasks. There are always standards that need to be addressed, conformance with comprehensive plans to be detailed, and applications to be put together and presented. Right off the bat, I was at a deficit. When I asked about responding to RFPs for code re-writes and master plans, "...there's not enough engineering in those projects..." Thought bubble: Huh? But if I land a $50,000 master plan, doesn't that cover my billing aspect...? Basically, I was doomed at this firm and when current planning (billing work) went thin, I was cut. So what was I doing up until then in between rezonings?


We had an asset who helped clients get financing and did development analyses that included highest and best use and return on investment information. How does he figure out what that means? Well, before we landed the clients who were searching for a viable concept, we had to do development proposals. How do you figure out what the down-low is for the project? The planner figures out all the baseline information, development potentials and entitlement procedures. You need this information to present the facts and establish the concept potentials. Without it, how do you discern the projected costs and tasks that are needed to represent the client? It's an essential element of the process needed to land the client- and it's non-billable. And the truth- you need to do a lot of these in order to have a good client base. One could say that the planning done on the front was an asset task; but, a non-billable one. Unfortunately, the upfront negative $$ numbers I put on my timecard trumped the value I offered. I learned, and the Universe reminded me I needed out.


In the future, I will remember to ask waaaaaaaay more questions before accepting a job. First- I was recruited and the recruiters made the company sound fantastic! "Excellent benefits." "Firm is growing and making more and more money each year." In the words of Constanza, "...yada, yada, yada."


First lesson: ask for a complete breakdown of actual benefits. I didn't know I had to negotiate sick time into my hiring contract. Working 45-hours a week equals 58 weeks a year and you got 12 days of vacation and sick time combined, that you couldn't even accrue until after 3 months. Result: unbalanced life-work balance right out of the gate.


Lesson two: what is salary? One would think this is pretty well known across the board; HOWEVER, if I didn't bill or detail 45 hours a week, they docked pay. Gulp! What? This stress is horrible- especially when a lot of your tasks are unbillable. But to dock salary? I was used to getting a salary AND billing clients with the understanding that a lot happens around the bill like questions that need to be asked, research that needs to be done so that WE understand the jurisdictional confines, goals of projects, finding out codes online, etc. We stare at pictures. We have to figure out the best way to go. It's etherial. I always got paid with this understanding at planning firms. My planning employers knew that planners do a lot of things differently than engineers. We learn a lot from conversations, training, and asking around. Hard to line item in your "billing" that a casual conversation yields more info than National Geographic. We are storytellers, marketers, and librarians.


Lesson three: Make sure your employer invests in their employees. As a member of the APA with AICP, you need a certain amount of credits to maintain, and planning is constantly introducing new theories and practices. There are conferences, training opportunities, and networking sessions for a reason. Make sure your employer understands this. In Colorado, engineers with their P.E. don't need anything to maintain their licensing. I was pretty much on my own, and when you had to work 45 hours a week to get the time to go to an event, some days I worked 11-12 hours. Forrrrrrget it.


Will I ever work for an engineering firm again? Maybe. Hey- I love engineers! We're partners in this world helping clients hand in hand. But honestly, I think I would feel more at home at a planning firm living in the grey, running around being positive, smiling and communicative to clients. Engineers of the past remain a bit too black and white for us dreamers; although us GenXers are bridging these gaps and I have faith in the new firms that are currently growing having a closer mindset to planning at the helm. For now: lessons learned.

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