Steve Butler, planning director for the city of SeaTac, can see why so many people get hooked by "Sims" — the computer game that invites...

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Steve Butler, planning director for the city of SeaTac, can see why so many people get hooked by “Sims” — the computer game that invites players to become instant master planners by designing and fine-tuning simulated communities with the click of a mouse. His own daughter is a player.

But in the real lives of regional and urban planners, this complex yet entertaining virtual-reality game is little more than child’s play.

In the real world, urban and regional planners are methodical professionals who tackle extensive research and lengthy study before designing short- and long-term plans and recommendations for growth and improvements in rural, suburban and urban communities.

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It’s also a government profession with some short- and long-term growth of its own.

Throughout Washington state, planners are increasingly in demand to help communities solve traffic, housing, environmental and economic problems.

“Growth-management issues aren’t going to go away, and particularly the growth in the Puget Sound region, so I would say there is definitely” future employment opportunity for planners here, says Butler, the president-elect of the Washington chapter of the American Planning Association.

Planning ahead?

How many: About 1,600 urban and regional planners in King and Snohomish counties; about 32,000 nationwide.

How much: Most planners make from about $31,830 a year to $76,700 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Demand: Good

More information: American Planning Association:

State labor figures show 1,660 planners work in King and Snohomish counties.

Statewide, openings are expected to grow by nearly 17 percent between now and 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Across the country, the number of planners is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2012, according to the bureau. Most new openings are projected in “affluent, rapidly growing urban and suburban communities.”

Many of the 32,000 urban and regional planners in the United States handle issues as varied as protecting shorelines and designing parks to choosing landfill or prison sites. About seven out of 10 planners throughout the country work for local governments.

“Planning at the local, county or state level typically involves two basic functions: long-range planning — where your city wants to be in 10 or 20 years — and development review — current planning, site planning and review specifics on projects,” Butler says.

Planners often have to navigate through an alphabet soup of regulations — such as SEPA (Washington State Environmental Policy Act) and GMA (Growth Management Act). That’s why planners need to be strong communicators, Butler says.

“It’s about collaborating, building consensus. You’re doing a good job if you’re asking people the right questions. Then the trick is to find the strategies and techniques to achieve those goals.”

Norman Abbott, an upper-level project manager, agrees.

“The very idea of being a city planner is all about the ability to draw things together,” says Abbott, who works for the Puget Sound Regional Council, which helps guide growth in King, Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap counties.

“It’s the ability to work with teams in other departments — engineers, transportation, economics people — and then take a look at the big picture.”

Even though much of the work involves forecasting, that big picture doesn’t show up in a crystal ball, Abbott says.

“It’s not magic,” says Abbott, who has a doctorate and special certification from the American Institute of Certified Planners.

His colleagues rely on scientific “models that predict where population and employment is going to be in the future. A huge part of that is public participation. A planner is always trying to pull together various aspects of a project with participation from the community.”

That’s why, in addition to math and science training, successful planners often have social-science training, Abbott says. Nearly all entry-level positions require a bachelor’s degree; most also require a master’s degree.

With those advanced degrees, the median annual salary of urban and regional planners without a certificate from the American Institute of Certified Planners was about $52,000 in 2004; those with AICP certification earned about $65,000 a year, according to the American Planning Association. Nationwide, salaries for those with and without a certificate ranged from about $31,830 to $76,700, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Many positions require more than 40-hour workweeks because they involve evening meetings with the public. The payoff or “results,” says Butler, are not immediate — but come at the “appropriate time.”

“When you see the development of a new mixed-use project that fits in a community, it’s gratifying,” he says. “Planners never get bored. They have to be forward thinkers with patience and persistence.”

Abbott says, “When I look back at how far our communities have come since 1990, I see so much progress.”

“It’s not just about urban centers, but it’s about how the work in Renton, Kent, Auburn, Tacoma and Everett is all coming together.”