Planners in red hot demand

John Wynne, Urbis
John Wynne, Urbis

MARKET PULSE: Demand for planners in Melbourne and Sydney is “red hot” at the moment with many consultancies finding it difficult to fill positions.

John Wynne, national planning director of consultancy Urbis, said it’s an incredibly busy time for planners and so recruiting them is a challenge.

“It’s fair to say that nationally the demand for planners is as high as it’s ever been and that’s across all levels of government, planning agencies, non-planning agencies that require planners working in them; it’s also in the consulting business,” he said.

“There’s been a real massive increase in demand for planners all across Australia – Victoria and NSW probably most notably.”

Planning Institute of Australia runs an online employment directory and fortnightly bulletin featuring planning jobs around the nation. Chief executive officer David Williams, who took the reins at the PIA in December, said Melbourne and Sydney accounted for 80 per cent of the job opportunities in Australia.

In the most recent PIA bulletin there were 67 jobs advertised – 28 in Melbourne and 20 in Sydney. At Christmas time there were 58 jobs – 40 in Melbourne and 13 in Sydney.

“Overall the job number vacancies are running at almost an all-time high,” Williams said. “Melbourne – it’s really red hot for the planners – and I assume from that there must be some difficulty getting the right people in the right jobs.

“Sydney is strong, Queensland is OK and all other capitals are flat to negative.

“It’s clearly very patchy with activity focused on those two cities but the other cities are so quiet. We’re seeing a little bit of migration, more younger planners – those that are more mobile – coming out of Adelaide and heading to Melbourne.”

Industry sources say they can’t find enough planners as local governments are “soaking them up”.  In Melbourne one senior planning consultancy principal told The Fifth Estate clients were flooding his office for help to understand what planning changes in Victoria meant for their property – one set comprised Plan Melbourne changes and another changes to residential zoned property.

Wynne said he has been talking to people in local government and they are struggling to fill their teams too. “Particularly in the statutory side of the business where there’s a lot more regulation and a lot more development applications, planning permits, being processed,” he said.

According to the PIA, the planner shortage is pretty much across the board. “We do that typical quadrant of private to public practice and statutory to strategic,” Williams said. “And there’s no clear pattern coming through on which of those areas are the more acute shortage.”

Urbis has more than 200 planners across the company in Australia and offshore. Wynne said it’s always a challenge and they are constantly recruiting.

“Certainly from a consultant’s point of view where we often try to recruit people who have experience in government or other consultancies – it’s even more of a challenge to get people who are suitable and experienced to take a role in the consulting area,” he said. “We’re fairly demanding in the sort of person that we look to hire.”

There are two main reasons for the shortage – the general level of activity and increased bureaucracy, Wynne says.

“The development industry has been very buoyant and particularly on the east coast of Australia over the last three to four years. So there’s more development applications and processes being required so it’s just the sheer activity in the industry that’s causing it.”

In Sydney, planners are playing a massive role in transport, both soft and hard infrastructure. “There’s more strategic planning happening in Sydney than has happened for 20 years,” Wynne said. “There is a place for planners in all those levels of government and agencies that are involved with that so there is an absolutely massive demand in that space.”

At the same time planning controls are becoming more detailed. There is more regulation, more process, and more bureaucracy. “Councils and consultants and government and private need to have people to manage that process,” Wynne said. “We don’t see the planning system becoming any simpler; it’s becoming quite demanding and therefore you need people to manage those processes.”

Victoria

PIA Victorian president Laura Murray works for a private consultancy and said they have had difficulties trying to find planners especially for the most senior level roles.

“We have a national office and I know that they have been having similar issues in Sydney,” she said. “We think the reasons for it are the large infrastructure projects that are going on so a lot of the planners have been snapped up to assist with getting those projects off the ground.”

She flagged the removal of planning from the skilled shortage list in metropolitan Melbourne as a possible contributing factor. “I know when I moved over nine years ago that’s how I managed to get a working visa,” she said. Now the 457 skilled migrant visas are only available to planners willing to work in regional Victoria.

Murray said the institute was looking at different ways to help provide additional resourcing. A post graduate level qualification is in the pilot stages. “We can work towards a similar process to private certified builders and things like that to provide more resources to under-resourced councils,” she said.

PIA NSW executive officer Michelle Riepsamen said a planner shortage was certainly the case for NSW. “It’s been under quite a high pressure situation for quite a while.”

Reasons that are attributing to the problem including a lack of awareness of the profession, the high-pressured nature of the job, inflexible workplaces, and the specialised nature of rural planning.

High school students are simply not aware of the profession. Although this does seem to be improving. This year the University of NSW reported a 115 per cent increase in planning students. “We really hope that that situation is starting to change and that the planning profession is starting to become one of those career choices that people are aware of to help fill those gaps,” Riepsamen said.

Traditionally, many people move out of planning after eight or 10 years and into other built environment professions. “The planning profession is quite a high pressured system – there’s a lot of conflict and a lot of pressure to be a planner. People do tend to get out of it,” she said.

“We do see that mentality starting to change with the global trends that are coming through and the rapid urbanisation as well as the need to balance lifestyle that we are seeing, particularly in our cities.

“The need for planners and the skills that planners bring are being more valued and more recognised but then this is also pushing a higher need for planners so that is starting to attribute to the greater demand for the profession as well.”

In addition, females who account for 50 per cent of planning graduates don’t stay long term. By the time planners are full members of the institute (5-10 years), just 30 per cent are women. “We know there’s a certain percentage of women dropping out of the profession,” Riepsamen said. “Whether that is inflexible workplaces? It certainly, I think, contributes to it.”

Finally, it’s difficult for regional centres to attract planners, yet often those that do come don’t have transferrable skills. “Planners are quite rare to fill regional positions … those planners that then do leave the city for a sea change or a rural change, they are coming without the experience that you need for regional planning,” Riepsamen said. “They don’t always have the greenfields experience with flooding and bushfire and the ecology issues that you see in regional Australia.”

For tips and inquiries contact sandra@thefifthestate.com.au

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