Careers Advice: Attracting young people to the planning profession

Written by: Nick Smith and Simon Prescott
Published on: 14 Jan 2019


Encouraging young people into the planning profession remains a key challenge and is something that universities, the RTPI and the planning sector are having to embrace. The number of students studying planning remains low compared with the demand for planners, but it is not just about increasing numbers; increasing the diversity of the profession is also an essential goal.

Proud planners

We are all role-models to the profession and young people are very receptive to real-world experiences and insights into what the job of a planner is really about. We know from our own experience that planners occupy a wide range of roles across very different organisations. However, most of us find our way with the guidance of others and are connected by a common sense of our potential to help make places better and more sustainable, together with the ability to work in a variety of locations with a range of communities. This potential is a real draw for prospective students too! Sometimes these messages are lost but we must do our best whatever the scenario, from hosting a student for work experience to talking about our job at a family gathering!

Engaging young people in planning practice

One of the best ways to inspire the next generation of planners is to involve young people in planning activities. We both have first-hand experience of the quality and insight young people bring to practical planning challenges. For example, Barton Willmore have brought live planning challenges to UWE Bristol students and taken away new solutions and ideas – and this has been replicated by students who have joined Barton Willmore on formal placements or work experience. We also know that this foundation of practical work and personal support has provided not only a platform for successful careers but for long-standing professional relationships.

Work with your planning school!

We both share a belief that bringing academia and practice together has long term value for the profession, for universities and for practices like Barton Willmore.

Planning schools across the UK are undertaking some excellent work already in helping to promote the profession and the suite of planning courses they offer. Universities are also active in school outreach, with staff visiting schools to help deliver workshops or supporting field work. While additional help is always welcome, young people are always interested to hear from those practising in planning. For this reason, staff at UWE Bristol often work with recent graduates to co-deliver school activities in order that they can feed back on what they did through their course and to give insight in what they do day-to-day as a planner.

For Barton Willmore, Simon’s role chairing UWE’s Bristol planning advisory board has enabled partnership working and a syllabus that mirrors both the reflective and critical thinking strengths of the university, and the real-world responsibilities and day-to-day decisions facing practising planners.

Encouraging professional conversation

Practitioners can also play an important role in helping to ensure that students, who opt to study planning at university, progress to become planning professionals. Involving practitioners to deliver guest lectures can help to inspire and enthuse students. UWE Bristol has already brought in about 20 guests to contribute to our programmes and we are only at a mid-point of the year! Many universities, including UWE Bristol, also operate a professional mentoring scheme that can help instil increased confidence in students and develop important coaching skills in potential mentors.

More widely, UWE Bristol and Barton Willmore have supported professional ‘mingles’ that bring together practitioners with university-wide programmes including Knowledge Transfer Partnerships increasing planning’s exposure to other sectors. The emphasis here is on conversation and facilitating connections so that individuals and planning practices can both gain from being part of these initiatives.

Developing new educational routes into planning

In the longer term, we recognise the need to continuously develop new routes into planning and overcome barriers to doing so. To take one example, delivering the degree apprenticeship for town planning is proving to be challenging. The standard is complete and the funding balance agreed but progress has stalled due to alternative thoughts surrounding the end point assessment. Once agreed, programme development can re-commence. Enacting this route is important and promises to bring in a broader range of applicants to the profession.

Nick Smith is an associate head of department in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management at UWE Bristol. Simon Prescott is a partner at Barton Willmore and is chair of the UWE Bristol Planning Advisory Board.