Friday, December 27, 2013

So this is it

This one will be a tough one for me to write. I'm doing this primarily for myself as a cathartic exercise. But I am also partially doing it for my more loyal readers, some of whom have wondered why I post less than I have had in the past. I view writing as a mental therapy and I just need to get some things out. This post may seem rambling at times as I have many disparate thoughts coming from many different directions.

Let me add a fair warning, there may be language that I don't normally say or write. I haven't cussed in this blog nor my other, so whatever I write will be from the depths of the passion I have.

I have failed. The top of this blog reads "a newly minted city planner." I received a masters, but never found the professional career path. For over three years, I routinely checked the job boards, entered the same information in different application software for different planning entities, applied for jobs I qualified for, went to the occasional interview, but never became a planner. My wife constantly told me I didn't fail. I still disagree. I tried and didn't succeed. By definition, I failed.

Today I accepted a position with the Dallas Police Department. Starting late next month, I begin training to become a police officer. Ironically, it will be the first job where I will actually get some compensation for my degree. Sadly, it is for my Bachelors. As it stands now, my Masters has been a $25,000 albatross.

I offer a brief timeline to give some context. I have a family. Part of the impetus for moving into an alternate career field is to provide for them. When we started family planning, the assumption was to get a good job out of college. There were some extra life issues that we dealt with that upped the timeline, so my first son was born in March 2010 several months ahead of the original thought. I finished studies the following August. There wasn't much job headway, so I started a second job in April of 2011. That provided enough income to make it work. Then in early 2012, we had unexpected news of a second son. I took a third income source, but it wasn't enough for both. We saved well, but it were going to run out before years end. I applied for DPD in case some of the opportunities that lay ahead of me failed. They did. By this time next year, I will be donning a police officers uniform.

There were several factors that I have pinpointed that caused this outcome.

My primary problem is that I lacked professional experience. Sure, I volunteered for various planning functions, like DART's D2 study and the Downtown 360 plan, but had no planning experience where I was paid for my efforts.

I logged a minimum of 70 applications for open, entry level positions (I like to catalog useless data and stats, but admit I likely missed a few). Most were within DFW, but several were around the state and country. Of those, well over half never responded other than thanks for applying. I was just left hanging. Most of the rest responded months after the fact, well after I already knew I was out (thanks for reminding me I didn't get it). A small handful let me know in a timely manner that I wasn't going to get an interview or work there, and they were the most appreciated.

Of those 70+, I interviewed for 7 positions. I know for a certainty that five of those ENTRY level positions were filled by folks with experience, including one  internship that was filled by someone with experience. Yes, you heard that right. I did not get an internship because I didn't have enough experience. In another case, a person involved in the hiring process was obviously sheepish when I asked for followup. He was embarrassed that they hired someone with experience for an entry-level position. I can't speak for certainty for the other two, because I just don't know. I have my suspicion, but nothing else.

That right there severely pisses me off. The planning industry is undervaluing itself. Folks with two or three years as a professional are being paid entry level salaries and doing entry level work. Meanwhile, true entry level people aren't doing squat but applying for the next job.

My wife has heard this rant many times. If you want experience, ASK FOR IT IN THE JOB POST!!!!! Not only are you devaluing the planning industry, you are giving false hope to folks like me. Sadly, though the miracle of the internet, I know I'm not the only one struggling through this.

The only classmates that I know who were able to get jobs were those who had no other personal obligations and could do low-to-un-paid internships. Some were living with parents, others with several roommates. I, on the other hand, had to support a wife and kids because I went back to school later in life. I had to have a full time job, while also going to Graduate School full time, while also becoming a first-time parent. There was just no way to do that and get an internship, unless it was paid. Paid internships were cut just as much as the planning staffs were (One classmate who got a professional gig actually told me that he didn't want to do planning as a career in an attempt to make me feel better...How that would make me feel better is beyond me).

In some ways, I am really not surprised that experience means so much. In a profession that categorizes everything, how do you measure an applicants worth? Worth ethic, desire, passion, motivation are all unmeasurable attributes. Even knowledge can be, though I do offer up my 4.0 Masters GPA as some type of measure, though it certainly doesn't cover it all. I'd put my writing and communication skills against anyone, but there really is no way to measure that. But experience? That is the easiest and really only one that is 100% completely measurable. And mine was 0.0.

Externally, I graduated at the worst time in the history of the planning profession. The deficiency in experience wouldn't have been an issue were the times more consistent with the previous twenty years. The cuts to parks and libraries received a lot of media attention but cuts to planning were just as severe. There are over 60 municipalities in the DFW region. If each laid off between 1-6 planners (I know one city eliminated the entire department), then us entry level guys never stood a shot if they were ahead of us.

In a down economy, I don't blame these experienced planners who were laid off for getting any job they can. They are probably more like me than those few students I mentioned who were getting a job. They had a family, kids or other obligations and needed a source of revenue. It doesn't make it any easier for me, but at least I can sympathize.

There are many in the profession who are openly questioning what the future of planning looks like. New blood is not coming in, especially at the rate of retirement and attrition. 

I am also dismayed with my University. Other than a professor who did everything he could, I felt the School of Urban and Public Affairs at UT-Arlington took my money, gave me a degree and sent me on my way. There was no prep while in school for getting a job. There was no career development folks to guide the process, offer tips or resume critiques. The best SUPA could do was have a e-mail service that published open jobs, but that's available only to students. I heard of few times about networking, but that was it and it wasn't in depth, just a casual mention. I had a fairly large network and absolutely nothing positive happened - I'll mention a little of that in a moment.

Even outside of SUPA, UTA fell flat. I asked Career Services for help with my resume in the beginning. They gave a few vague pointers that I had seen on Yahoo!'s front page. I revamped what was an absolutely awful resume and asked them to critique that. Crickets. I tried again and got nothing. I felt like a cheap date. UTA took my money and showed me a good time and then the door. Didn't even pay for cab fare.

So to the professor, Ard Anjomani, thank you so much for all your help. I just wish it wouldn't have been in vain. I'm only using his name because I truly felt he did everything he could to help. He deserves some praise. To most of the other professors, thank you for providing a mentally stimulating environment. To the rest of UTA that I dealt with, shame on you! Shame for taking my money and running. I needed you and instead I got nothing.

Even some of my fellow classmates deserve shame. Many of them were already employed in the field while working on their Masters, beneficiaries of a better economic climate. On in particular still makes my skin crawl. In a lapse of moral judgement, I fed him answers for his thesis-substitute test. Had he not passed this test, he wouldn't have graduated. I can't say for sure the many answers I provided were the difference in pass/fail, but I do know I studied and he didn't. He passes, moves to a different, higher paying job in another city, bolstered by his experience and Masters Degree. Eventually, that city has an opening and when I call asking for a good word, he tells me there is nothing he can do because he is on the hiring committee. Just thinking about still pisses me off. There are other examples networking failure, but that one...that ire will never subside.

And Alumni Association, stop calling me asking donations. Even if I could afford to give you something, I don't feel I owe you anything. I have two degrees from you. My Bachelors I actually used in radio, though the U in now way advises against getting a Communications or Journalism Degree. The traditional media industries are shrinking and dying, yet their enrollment is increasing and they don't mention a thing about job prospects. However, I got the degree and worked in the field.

With SUPA, I couldn't even get work in the industry. In my naivety, I truly thought I could take a 4.0 in a Masters program and get a job.Maybe I deserve some shame too.

Irony, I still love my Alma Mater. At least as an undergraduate, I felt an attachment to UTA. I actively follow the U's sports teams, as evidenced by my second blog, and still feel a positive emotion toward UTA. But it in no way shape or form has anything to do with earning a Masters. I still seethe when I think of how they use their students, or more accurately, their wallets. Or, considering the ballooning crises surrounding student loans, their credit worthiness is the most accurate.

When I told a close friend I might become a police officer - he is one himself - he expressed reservations about me joining the police department. His primary concern was that the profession is a hard one, and those without the passion may struggle.

There may be some truth to that. But I believe in loyalty and paying it forward. All levels of the department, from the folks who processed our paperwork, to the test takers, to the background detective, busted their ass to try and get me in. Were it not for a legal issue with my name, they would have done all of that in time for the academy that began the first week of November. In fact, thanks to my current employment, DPD officers have been recruiting me for years. After failing so long at attaining a planning job, it feels good to be wanted. I will NEVER forget that. That creates a passion and drive to succeed and honor that.

It is clear the planning profession has no desire to include me. I don't have any pretense that I would have been a superstar planner along the lines of Peter Calthorpe, Janet Sadik-Kahn or Daniel Burnham. But I can guarantee you, any planning agency would be hard pressed to find a member of their staff more dedicated or driven to succeed than me. Instead, that drive now goes to DPD. And it is the same drive they have shown towards me.

But I won't lie. It hurts. Failing to become a planner really hurts. I don't normally fail. Most times, I just try harder until I figure out how to succeed. Prior, my one other big failure was not making radio work. With little chance of advancement and a huge likelihood of instability, I left the radio industry and its $7/hr, weekday night, market #5 broadcasting position. I just couldn't make it work professionally. It was creating a strain on my personal life (BTW, the $7/hr I earned as recently as October 2006, isn't even minimum wage now). That was my biggest failure. However, spending $25,000 for a piece of paper and not getting into the industry is now my biggest. I couldn't make either work and both still hurt.

As it stands now, I am just channeling that hurt into making this work. I really don't know how to describe the feeling that I finally will be able to fully provide for my family. I will enjoy the new challenges and am ready to tackle it head on. I am really excited about the future and am very much looking forward to January 29, when academy starts. In fact, I have already spent Christmas money and gift cards on items I will need for it.

As for this blog, I don't honestly know what is in store. I still love transportation, urban design and development. I still want Dallas to achieve a critical mass of cohesive, consecutive urban neighborhoods. I can foresee a time when the pain wears off and I will post again. What I will type would be Dallas-specific, as the posts about planing in general won't have any meaning to me anymore.

 I don't know when, but that's the best I can offer my group of loyal readers. Until then, thank you so much for following me and giving me an outlet these last three years, since I didn't get that with a professional job to actually practice it in.

1 comment:

Ken Duble said...

I identify with your sorrow. I had to throw in the towel on making a living as a writer, having experienced similar results. Yet, even while struggling as a writer, I could always make a living on the phone. As was the case with law enforcement with you, it was something I could always count on, so I wound up in financial services.

There are some law men who understand how the urban environment affects law enforcement and concentrate on weed-and-seed. Sgt Shane Owens in the Farmers Market is one such officer. Perhaps you can find a collaboration with like-minded individuals.