Thursday, February 4, 2010

Taking Initiative: a good question from a reader

On the most recent post about taking initiative, Anonymous writes:

For young professionals or architectural interns, what is going on inside architecture firms right now as far as hiring is concerned? I've read articles that said firms are not posting jobs now since they are afraid of receiving hundreds of resumes per opening. I've also read articles that firms can't hire and that unemployment for the architectural profession is 40%-60%. Do you recommend that we keep sending resumes to firms now or wait a few months or change professions?

Good question. First of all, I'd like to know the sources of the articles you read, especially the one about the 40%-60% architectural unemployment rate. My guess is that 40%-60% might be a market-wide number but not an overall profession number. In a recent email to its members, the AIA's national president quoted the national architectural unemployment figure in 2009 as 15%. (I have to wonder if those are AIA member numbers or overall profession numbers.) However, some cities or areas that were hit really badly by the recession (like perhaps Detroit) might be seeing 40%-60% architectural unemployment. It's hard to say. Some firms here in Colorado lost about 10%-15%, like the rest of the nation, while others were hit harder when several projects went on hold at once, or perhaps because they grew during the 2000s and suddenly couldn't keep all of those people billable and busy. And some firms laid off very few if any folks. (Those were usually the really big firms who have offices in several cities.)

Of my 20+ friends and colleagues in architecture who were laid off in the past 18 months, nearly all but about two or three finally have jobs again, though one of them got a job in a different field. Some of them were interns, and some of them were licensed architects. So again, it's hard to say. A pattern I've been noticing is that those who were less likely to get hired by someone were usually older folks who were still not licensed (as in, older than 35). Some of the interns I know who were laid off got gigs with folks who started their own firms, and another that I heard from recently will be going back to grad school in a few more months. (As I've mentioned before, grad school is a good place to ride out a crappy economy.)

But let's say grad school isn't an option for you; either you can't swing it financially, or you've just completed grad school. What now? I posted recently about getting a job as an intern in a bad economy. After you've got a good resume and cover letter together, ask professors or former employers (if you left on good terms) about firms that might be hiring or at least to whom it might be worth sending a resume. While firms may not be hiring, it's not like they're casting aspersions on those who dare send a resume--we all know it's a craptastic economy and that everyone is trying their hardest. It might be worth adding to your cover letter something about "I know you are not hiring right now, but I'd like to send you my resume for when projects pick up--if you will be needing good interns, I can definitely be of service." You can ask for an informational interview, just to get a practicing professional's view of architectural work and the economy, and you can also mention that you are available for contract work if that is desired or preferred in the short run.

The AIA's job board can be somewhat helpful, though at the time of this posting they seem to be looking for more licensed folk than non-licensed folk. But remember, that's just the ones they're posting. The articles you're reading may be right--firms don't really have to post open positions right now because they can either call up the folks they just laid off, or their present employees know someone who's really good and could be brought on board with minimal fanfare. And here's where the news can be good for you: while some firms will call back some of their old employees, they're likely not to call all of them back. With so much labor available--some of it pretty dang good and cheap--they may be willing to take a chance on you. If you have little to no experience, it may be worth their time to hire you because your wage will be low and your learning curve will be pretty sharp.

So, to finally answer your question, Anonymous, it's still worth your time to send out resumes, provided that you do a little research before you start carpet-bombing your town with your paper, and provided that you've tuned that paper up a bit. You may have to work elsewhere for a while before you finally land a job in architecture, but I say that if you really want to do this, you can make it happen.


  1. Out here in Portland Oregon we have been hit pretty bad. I'd guess 25-40% unemployment in the city. Not to mention under employment. My office is a mix of full, 3/4, and half time, with several people on furlough for a month at least. We have also laid-off about 30% of the staff.

    There was ONE position in Portland advertised nationally last month on the AIA site (10 years experience, licensed, higher ed background) and it got 2000 resumes. There are only 1300 architects in the whole state!

    I am anxious for things to turn around, but we have not turned the corner out here.

  2. For those recently laid off - if you haven't seen the 1/2 hour movie "Lemonade" it's definitely worth your time. It focuses on layoffs in the advertising industry, but the overall message is inspirational.

    Whether or not you decide to stay within architecture (and I agree, we need talented folks to reinforce and build the profession), the advice at 20:40 is helpful:

    "Don't be the person who's out there looking for a job - be the person out there doing something interesting."

    Find the movie on Hulu here:

  3. Dear Lulu,

    I am the anonymous one who asked this question. Here is part of the article that I found containing those statistics: It was written by Gregory J. Scott. I just cut / pasted part of it below:

    First to suffer, last to recover


    By Gregory J. Scott

    // As their ranks of unemployed continue to grow, Downtown architects scramble to redefine their profession //

    Alan D’Souza is one of the lucky ones.

    The day he received notice of his layoff from a St. Paul architecture firm back in November 2008, he already had a tentative job offer in hand. It wasn’t a design gig, exactly. But it was pretty close. The Weidt Group, a Minnetonka-based sustainable design consulting company with whom D’Souza had worked closely at his old firm, wanted to bring him on staff. D’Souza had been shifting his focus closer to sustainable design anyway, and he seemed a natural candidate for the Weidt Group, a leader in the field. The job appeared to be a sure thing.

    It took six months for the offer to materialize.

    “They were interested, but they weren’t hiring immediately,” D’Souza remembers. “They could see that the profession across the board had been hit, and since they work mostly with architects, they were cautious about bringing on new people.”

    Still, a six-month stall in employment seems mild in a crisis that has many laid-off architects and designers wondering if they’ll ever return to work.

    According to the latest data available from the Department of Labor, employment at American architecture firms, which peaked last July at 224,500, had dropped to 184,600 by November. And many among those counted as “employed” have seen their hours reduced to part-time, their status changed to independent contractor or their salaries replaced by smaller hourly wages. Such measures make it difficult to pin down a precise unemployment percentage, but here in Minnesota, most industry watchers estimate joblessness to be between 40 and 60 percent.

    So unsettling is the unemployment situation that architecture, some say, has joined print media and the auto industry as a sector that must make dramatic changes if it is to survive.

    With the bulk of Minnesota architects concentrated in Downtown firms — the state chapter of the American Institute of Architects estimates that two-thirds of its members work in Minneapolis — the crisis has had a very visible impact on the core of the city.

    “The demand right now is very low,” said Jason Mehmen, an account manager at Aerotek, a local recruiting agency that staffs architects and engineers. “There is just so much uncertainty on the part of the firms. They’re scared to death to hire anyone, even if they do need people.”

    Every job vacancy triggers a flood of applications, Mehmen said. And sifting through hundreds of potentially irrelevant resumes makes hiring even less appealing to employers already jittery about taking on new talent.

    “I’ve already had architecture firms say, ‘We’re not even going to post our jobs. We’re not even going to deal with it.’”

    Staffing agencies like his have grown even more important than ever, Mehmen says, in saving firms the hassle of filtering applicants. But they can also absorb a lot of the risk involved when a firm looks to hire on a part-time or contract basis. “If we employ someone, we provide their benefits, and we pay their unemployment insurance,” Mehmen said. “We offer candidates that security, but we also offer the firm the flexibility not to bring them directly onto payroll.”

    The problem, most experts agree, is the lending environment, which remains painfully frozen 18 months after the real estate market initially imploded. Banks aren’t taking any risks, developers are starved for financing, and with new construction stalled indefinitely, it’s impossible for architecture firms to look ahead to new projects. So tied to new construction is the architecture profession that it has tended to boom and bust along with the real estate market.

    Reach Gregory J. Scott at