My career in… Transport Planning Consultancy

 

What is your current role?

I am a Regional Director in the transportation section of a large multinational, multidisciplinary consultancy, currently overseeing the development of our bus planning business.

What are you working on now?

Currently, my main projects include developing a strategy for public transport ticketing for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and preparing a proposal to design a substantial bus network in the Middle East.

How did you get to this point in your career?

  • I don’t like being pigeon holed, finding myself having to work continuously on the same type of projects, just because I’ve done them before.  I’m always looking for a new challenge, and while sometimes that can be done within the same company, it often pays to move because you can pick up more variety of experience.
  • Having completed a Geography degree and a Transport Planning MSc, I had several junior roles in transport planning consultancies, where I developed public transport demand forecasting skills through working all over the UK on a range of projects, including rail franchises, tram schemes and fares & ticketing arrangements.
  • Having got bored just pressing buttons on computer models, I decided that I wanted to develop commercial skills relating to private sector public transport operation.  I got interested in this sort of work having helped a bidder for the Manchester Metrolink system develop their commercial strategy, so I then took the next step of joining a bus operator.
  • This work helped me to develop an understanding of private sector business strategies and the legislative framework within which the sector operates.  My main role was to help improve financial performance through reviewing bus routes and fares.  However, the recession got in the way of further career progression, so I jumped back to consultancy.

What are the Highs and Lows of the job?

Highs

  • There is a variety of work on offer, both in terms of the type of project and the location.  For example, I never thought that I’d be paid to drink whisky on Islay while developing a business case for investment in ferries.
  • Not everything that you work on will get built or operated, but it’s a real buzz when it does.  While they may have been knocked down immediately afterwards, I was pleased to see that my plans for the pedestrian access areas at the City of Manchester stadium worked as planned during the 2002 Commonwealth Games.
  • While the graduate entry salary is comparable to other graduate entry jobs, the right people have the potential for rapid promotion and attractive salaries.  By your mid-thirties you could be earning over £50K.
  • Many consultancies are now international, giving opportunities for short term secondments and possibly relocation to other countries for those with the right skills.  However, sometimes you might not be given much notice or much choice in the matter!

Lows

  • It is depressing when you end up having arguments with clients who don’t like the fact that your independent analysis has come up with a different solution from their preconceived idea of the answer.
  • It can be stressful with long hours – you can often work over 60 hours a week.  I once worked 7 days a week for 3 months, including a few weeks where I worked over 100 hours.
  • Nights in hotels may seem like a nice perk but there can’t be too many people who have received a Christmas card from the Ibis in Glasgow.  It sucks!

What training or experience is needed?

  • Almost all transport planners will have a degree.  Most degrees are acceptable, although numerate degrees, economics, geography and other social sciences may be more useful.  Postgraduate degrees are now rarely required and changes in funding mean that less postgraduate places are likely to be available in the future.
  • Most consultancies have a graduate scheme based around on-the-job learning, possibly covering some of the requirements of professional qualifications.

The two most useful skills are:

  • Spreadsheet analysis, including the ability to interpret salient points from large data sets.
  • Report writing, including a good grasp of grammar and logical thinking.

Work experience is not essential although there may be openings for people wising to experience consultancy work, usually involving data processing or survey work.

Attitude, Personality & Interests

  • You reap what you sow.  If you put in the hours you are likely to be rewarded (or at least you will once the recession has ended).
  • The ability to absorb lots of external information is important, because it will help you to build a rich context for any new tasks.
  • Different personality types will be suited to different aspects of the work, with socially confident staff regularly interacting with clients and others assuming more office-based roles developing models.
  • Be ready to assume a thick skin when everyone you meet thinks that they know more about transport planning than you do.  Deny all knowledge of the fact that it now costs £2 bus fare to travel a mile even if you were personally responsible.
  • Being a “spotter” can be helpful but is not a requirement!

Finding Opportunities

  • The trade press is a good starting point for finding out what each consultancy does.  It’s a very small industry, making networking easier – frequently in the pub with other new graduates.  Agencies exist but won’t help you much.
  • Speculative applications using a covering letter and CV are acceptable at any time of year, though you won’t always get a positive response.
  • Interviews vary from informal chats to formal first & second round interviews, possibly involving psychometric and analytical tests.  Employers will be looking for analytical skills, lateral thinking and the ability to work as a member of a team.  Enthusiasm and a willingness to learn can go a long way.
  • Most of my career moves have been a result of knowing the right person.

Any Other Advice

As well as consultancy roles, transport planners will often be employed by local, regional & national government and by public transport operators.

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2 Responses to My career in… Transport Planning Consultancy

  1. Tom West says:

    I work for a transport planning consultancy, and feel this is generally a very good description. However, at my company sixty hour weeks were the exception, not the norm implied here.

    If you and your colleagues are regularly working 50% more hours than your contract states, it means the company isn’t employing enough people.

    • Sarah M (Careers Service) says:

      Consultancies certainly all work differently and the hours an employee works are a direct relationship between numbers of staff and the amount of work that needs to be done. Some specialist staff may have more demands on their time than others.

      Some consultancies may ask employees to sign themselves out of the European working hours directive http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/employment/employees/workinghoursandtimeoff/dg_10029426 – so that there are no limits on how much they work per week. Those that do not sign may feel pressured to do so.

      The nature of consultancy can certainly be challenging but the pay in general reflects this.

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