As you crest the halfway point of your undergraduate career, you may have mixed feelings about the concept of an internship. On the one hand, the experience is invaluable and the exposure to a professional environment is something which simply cannot be recreated in studio. On the other hand, you’re looking at interning 20-40 hours a week in an office or out in the field, in the middle of summer and very likely with no pay. And this is on top of an already overburdened school schedule, work schedule and family schedule. Is the experience worth it or is it just another burden piled on top of an already stressful phase in life?
To graduate, each student enrolled in the Urban Planning and Design undergraduate program at UMKC must complete no fewer than 240 hours at an agency, corporation, institution or organization related to the planning field. This opens things up to a wide range of possibilities and even allows some room for creativity in interpreting just what professions relate to planning. After all, planning relates to and is inherent in a vast array of sectors, practices and disciplines. We work with other planners, of course, but also with developers, redevelopers, and other government agencies like housing authorities, administration, public works and parks & recreation. We work with preservationists, engineers, architects, landscape architects, church leaders, etc. It’s like ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’. Take most any profession and I can tell you how its creation or facilitation in some way owes something to a planner.
With that in mind, don’t approach finding an internship with the mentality of ‘take what I can get.’ Instead, think about what interests you, what relationships you want to build, what you want to learn about that you aren’t getting or can’t get in school, and then find the right people to talk to. If you want to work in the private sector, you’re in a great place! Kansas City has a high concentration of private planning and design firms, many of which have national or even international connections. If you want to work in the public sector, Kansas City, MO, by population, is only a quarter of a vast metro area, consisting of 150 cities, 12 counties and 2 states. There’s no reason you can’t find what you want.
Still, it’s a competitive world with more demand for internships than supply. You may not get your dream internship and, likely as not, you won’t get paid! But not all compensation comes in the form of money. After a weeks-long search, I managed to get an interview with a smaller city with a small planning department which had no money to pay an intern. I was hired and immediately plunged into a strange world where people spoke in terms of ‘plats’, ‘lot splits’, ‘FLUs’, ‘SUPs’, ‘capital plans’, ‘TIFs’, etc. One of my first cases dealt with a homeowner who wanted to create a new residential lot that didn’t meet the depth requirements for the zoning district. I learned then what it was like to talk to someone who has hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line and is pressuring you to come up with a creative solution. I learned what it was like to have strangers calling me, irate about increases in traffic and density in their neighborhood. In the end, we were able to interpret the zoning code so that he could create the lot without a variance, but it impressed upon me how complex it is to move a line on a piece of vellum! So I gained not only the technical skill, but a measure of professional empathy, as well.
After working my required hours as an intern, I was first hired part-time in the department, then eventually as a full-time planner after my graduation in 2011. I realize now how incredibly fortunate I was, even though the city I’m at wasn’t originally on my list. If you wind up in a less-than-ideal situation, thinking ‘I wouldn’t even work here if it weren’t for the 240 hour requirement’, know that your employer may be less than enthusiastic about you too! Keep a good attitude and look for ways to inform yourself, to add to your portfolio of skills and wisdom. I’ve found this accounts a good deal of what planning is: applying wisdom and intuition to the framework of laws and codes.
What I learned is that an internship is like testing an airplane after years of designing it on paper. Nobody expects the first flight to go perfectly, but if you don’t get it out of the hangar, how will you know whether or not it can fly? Embrace this opportunity, not just for the things you can learn about planning, but also for the things you can learn about yourself.
*David Jones is a Planner at the City of Liberty, MO.