James is a Senior Associate in an international multi-disciplinary professional services consultancy. His job is to formulate development solutions for private and public sector clients wishing to secure planning consent for development and regeneration.
What are you working on at the moment?
Several master plans for large mixed-use development sites, various sustainable power projects (windfarms and biomass/biogas) and a major lands tribunal case.
So how did you get to this point in your career?
After leaving university (where I did a BA (Hons) in geography followed by an MSc in transport planning), I worked in consultancy for a year as a graduate before deciding I needed some excitement, so got a job in Vienna with a town planning practice where I lived and worked for 2 years.
I then came back to the UK into the private sector where I’ve worked ever since, moving up the career ladder at three companies. I have been with my current company for 8 years and was made a shareholder 4 years ago.
What were the major decisions you made along the way?
- I decided to do a postgraduate degree in transport planning rather than going straight into an urban design/town planning career. This gave me a far broader range of options when deciding what graduate jobs I was going to apply for.
- Living and working abroad was a life-changing decision, which was really the making of me, both from a personal and professional point of view. I was more confident on my return and the international experience seemed to be very attractive to potential employers. I would recommend this to anyone.
- Choosing to join my current company was a major career decision as I was setting up a new team from scratch in a company that was not known in the UK for my field.
- Progressing to being invited to become a shareholder in the company, which in itself is a career decision bringing with it the associated responsibilities and financial commitment.
What are the highs and lows?
- The work is in the main intellectually stimulating and a challenge. You are constantly working on new projects in different locations with different challenges so it’s rarely boring. You work with a wide range of people from different professional backgrounds and are constantly learning new skills.
- Financial rewards can be attractive!
- The work can be stressful and the hours long as it is very much a success driven business, but this is common to most professional careers.
- The biggest low in the last decade is the current economic recession which has seen the development industry hit badly across all sectors and many companies have made significant redundancies. The economy is however cyclical and we have not seen many good companies going out of business, so when the economy turns the corner they will need to rebuild their business again by recruiting new staff.
What training or experience are essential to get in?
- You do need a relevant degree. A post-graduate qualification is less important now than perhaps in the past. Most employers expect their professional staff to work towards achieving chartered status and this is far more difficult without a degree, although not impossible and skill and talent always shine through.
- The academic qualifications merely give a sign to a potential employer that you are interested in that career and have achieved a certain basic grounding in the relevant areas. Most knowledge is gained through ‘self-learning’ and taking an active interest in knowing and understanding emerging thinking, policy trends (sustainability being the current buzz word) and researching planning decisions and exemplar projects in your field.
- Work experience is useful, although not essential. It will show a potential employer that you have shown some commitment to a career by doing this. Remember that all good employers are looking to identify and train their stars of the future from graduate level and are making a big investment in time and money.
What about attitude, personality or interests?
- You have to be prepared to work hard and to be a team player.
- Personality-wise, you need to be confident in your abilities and be able to communicate effectively to a wide range of audiences as the work is often adversarial in nature, from putting your client’s case in meetings with council officers and the public, to appearing as an expert witness at a public inquiry or court case where you will be cross examined by a QC.
How have you found opportunities in this field?
- The professional press advertise vacancies and some companies attend job fairs.
- Once you are in the industry, networking is a good way forward, but your professional reputation will precede you and this is the best way to get on – do a good job.
What advice would you give someone considering a similar career?
Don’t specialise too early. Try to gain a broad range of experience across the sector so you can find out what you like (and just as importantly what you don’t like) and what fits your skill set.