Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The good news for interns in a crappy economy

Yes, it's a crappy time economically right now.  No, I don't know when it's going to improve, but I know that it will.  At some point--perhaps next month, perhaps even next year--companies will start investing in their built environments again, and the work will come back.  You know that I want you all to stay in the profession, but there's more to it than just my impassioned pleas for you to stay in the fold so you can help me change it as we age and take over as the Boomers leave.

First off, let's consider what this economy is doing to those Boomers.  Their retirement investments are in the sewer, and many of them can't retire as soon as they wanted.  If you're in an office right now, you might be working near them--cranky fiftysomethings and maybe even sixtysomethings with a condo or small house in a warmer climate or a side hobby that they wanted to turn into their next chapter of life, but they're having to hold off turning that page, and they're annoyed.  Really annoyed.  They were done with the intensity of this profession, and now they're not gonna be done for at least a few more years, maybe even ten years.  Dammit.  

These older professionals have something you need, and you have something they need.  They have lots of experience from which you can learn--they've drawin details that leaked water and nearly got them sued, they've designed buildings and projects that work like a charm for the clients, they've handled tough building owners and cranky contractors with aplomb and calmed panicky clients and furious consultants with a few words.  Learn from them; ask questions and probe them for lessons learned.  People love to talk about themselves, and the longer you live, the more you want to tell people what you've seen.  Even shy people will tell you a little something if you coax them.  So ask them how would they do x or y, how have things changed since they started in the profession, what's gotten better since then and what's gotten worse?  Meanwhile, you have a technical proficiency that many older architects lack.  You know how to use the drafting and rendering software, and you know how to use simple graphics software to plop some color on a plan or pop a shadow on a graphic.  Share your knowledge with them and make suggestions on how what you know could improve what they're trying to do.

Let's consider another aspect of this uber-crappy economy: the thinning of the herd.  Layoffs during the first half of 2008 eliminated dead weight, as it's sometimes called: underperforming employees or employees who may perform okay but have issues with authority, behavior, or professionalism, as well as folks who may be okay but who are just paid too much.  The second half of 2008 (and some of 2009) were spent making deeper cuts and laying of better employees who perhaps just didn't have any projects going.  What this means is that the architectural job market is now flooded with really good applicants along with the mediocre applicants.  When the work comes back, chances are it's not going to be with a bang but with a sigh.  When the work comes with a bang, firms need lots of warm bodies fast, and they'll hire anyone with an accredited degree who can fog a mirror.  But when the work slowly comes back, firms can be a little more choosy, and they'll pick the better applicants over the mediocre ones.

But then, even more work comes back.  Projects are coming back and work levels are hitting pre-crash levels.  Who's going to work on this stuff?  Here's a wild guess on my part: you.  Here's why I think that.  Some of the mediocre architectural staff--not all, but some--will have grown weary of the fight for positions directly related to their field, and they will change jobs or even careers.  Many of those who leave the profession do so because of personal concerns; young single interns can wait out a recession while working at Target and living in their parents' basement and putting their student loans in forebearance, but older interns and architects with mortgages and kids cannot wait so long on a diminished income.  So when the work really comes back and the firms need warm bodies, younger interns are poised to step in and step up.  

First off, you'll be cheaper.  I hate to play the cheap card, but it's true.  If my mid-sized firm's billings have been at all-time low levels for the past 18 months and I've drained what little cash cushion I had, and now I need to ramp back up and complete some projects but also rebuild that cushion, it can be worth my while to hire an intern with only a year's worth of experience out of college than an unlicensed intern with six years' experience.  Second, you have the ambition and energy needed to do more with less.  My hypothetical mid-sized firm suddenly has a lack of experienced folks to work on specs and do construction administration, but I can't do it all, so it will save me time in the long run to have my younger interns step up and take on more tasks.  While these young interns are helping me get the work done on a skeleton crew (and yes, a shoestring budget), they're gaining valuable experience and skills that will allow them to ask for a lot more money in a couple of years, either from me or when they change jobs.  Additionally, this rush of experience can allow you to complete your IDP credits in almost record time.

Now bear in mind that I did not say this was going to be easy.  The first couple of years' climb out of the hole that this recession has dug for us all will be tough, but as Immanuel Kant said, what does not kill you makes you stronger.  If you can hang in there with us--with me--in architecture during these tough times, you will have a major advantage once things get better, and that advantage will follow you long into your architectural career.


  1. I had two super interns in my office who were let go late last year. They were very intelligent and motivated and have both found great work in other fields and I do not think they will come back to architecture to earn less.

    There is going to be a big talent hole when work does comes back. I will have to delegate work to less capable interns or do it myself.

    Additionally, an older architect at my firm who has worked here for twenty years, just left for a higher paying job at a CMGC firm we have done work with. His retirement took a hit and he could not resist the higher pay. He is hoping to still be able to retire on schedule by earing (and saving) more.

    I am very worried about the profession right now, and things will not be the same when work does pick-up.

  2. I agree, Anonymous. Things will not be the same when things pick back up. I hope that enough of our good interns will still be left. That's part of my goal with this blog: to improve and maintain the quality of interns in our profession...and to keep them in our profession.

  3. " If my mid-sized firm's billings have been at all-time low levels for the past 18 months and I've drained what little cash cushion I had, and now I need to ramp back up and complete some projects but also rebuild that cushion, it can be worth my while to hire an intern with only a year's worth of experience out of college than an unlicensed intern with six years' experience."

    So what happens to that unlicensed intern with 6 years experience?
    Are they doomed because the new normal dictates that someone with too much experience=too much pay?? Seems to me that those of us that have fulfilled most of our IDP requirements and have started testing are stuck in the proverbial gray area.
    And what about BIM and Revit. From the time I was ;right-sized' (about a year and a half ago) to now, Revit has suddenly become the latest big requirement, and a deal-breaker for me with at least a couple of interviews. I realize that it's been nearly 2 years since this post, but I feel as though there is a huge pool of experienced talent out there right now that is basically hosed as far as ever working for any firm ever again.