Monday, April 6, 2009

It’s better to be laid off than laid on, Part 1 of 2

            Here’s the deal for any intern who is working while in school, right out of school, and up to about three years’ worth of experience out of school: you’re all replaceable.  I hate to tell you all that, especially when things are so dark right now, but you're all replaceable.  Some are more replaceable than others, but you’re all replaceable, whether you’re good, bad, or indifferent (indifferent means just warming a seat for eight hours a day).  It’s not that people don’t love you and value you as a human being; it’s about business.  The business of architecture is such that more of us leave the profession as time goes by, so it gets harder and harder to find people who can do the job and do it well.  But schools churn out a fair amount of bright, eager future architects each year, so there are a lot more of you than there are of polished, well-trained present-day architects.  If you’re less than stellar, and a firm can find a way to get along without you, believe me—they will.  However, you can make yourself less replaceable.  Being less replaceable can mean the hanging onto your job in a slow economy and coming out the other side looking good, or (worst-case scenario) having a job the longest in a really, really bad economy, which would allow you to stockpile a little survival cash and have time to put together a strong, solid resume.

            A few first words are in order here.  Even in a great economy, never, never, never take your job for granted.  Much less replaceable people than you have been laid off because of terrible, sudden economic circumstances or fired because of attitude or behavior.  Again, remember that if there's ever a good excuse to send a less-than-awesome employee out the door, a business--no matter what field--will do it.  Don't give anyone an excuse.  Treat everyone with respect regardless of where they are on the ladder—your boss, her boss, the administrative assistants, the copy room guy, the woman who empties the trash cans after hours, the office manager, oh! and  your colleagues.  It matters, and it makes a difference.  Relationships are key in any industry, and architecture is no difference.  You need to economy-proof your job when business is booming: develop strong, positive relationships when things are good, and you can call on those relationships when things are bad.  By the time you need a relationship, it’s too late to develop it.

            Now, in a slumped or slow economy, bringing your A-game makes a difference.  Training-wise and psychologically, even if not legally, you’re an architect; you know that the small details make up the big picture, so focus on those details.  Go all out and do your best work on everything you’re assigned, even if it’s just some filing or cleaning out some flat files.  Learn from every task you get.  Learn the nuances of those tasks—why am I doing them?  Who do they affect, and how?  Look for ways to help, to contribute.  Say “please” and “thank you.”  Be pleasant and civil, even to people who annoy the crap out of you.  Even if you’re not super-busy, get to work as close to on time as possible.  Dress better—even if your office is really casual, leave the jeans at home until Friday.  Sound shallow?  Of course it does.  Humans (especially architects) judge each other and their world based primarily on visual information, and every little detail tells your boss and his or her boss that you care: you’re serious, you want to be there, and you want to keep your job.

            That's for a slumped or slow economy.  In a really slow economy or a recession, like what we had in 2008 and have now in spring of 2009, not even this may be good enough.  Allow me to reassure you: there’s no shame in that.  If you’re lucky enough to survive the first round of layoffs, consider it fair warning and an opportunity to get your resume together and collect the following pieces of information:

  • Images of projects you’ve worked on: snapshots of plans or elevations, computer or hand renderings, or even photos of the built end result. 
  • Project details: 
  1. name of project
  2. name of client/owner and address/location (at least a city and state)
  3. program/project type, square footage of the construction or renovation (or square footage of construction and of renovation if the project included both)
  4. possibly even building or occupancy type.  
That way, if you’re next to be laid off (or next after the next), you’re ready on at least one count.  You won’t be emailing your former coworkers and scrambling to get information and images the day after you get escorted out of the building.

            Remember: having some experience and bringing your A-game can help keep you on, but if things are really bad there may be no saving your job.  And also remember: there’s no shame in that.  Business is business, and the economy is the economy.  It is what it is.

Next post: Part 2: how layoffs work.

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