Innovation & Design

How Can Architects Survive the Recession?


With layoffs sweeping the profession, architects of all stripes should prepare for the worst

Stephanie Houston's saga is all too common these days.

Armed with a master's degree in architecture and six years of professional experience, Houston currently is hunting for work in San Francisco after getting laid off from a U.K.-based firm in October. She is taking all of the necessary steps: finessing her résumé and portfolio, scouring the Web for job openings, networking at full-throttle. She even printed her own business cards. Ever determined, Houston has contacted 30 firms in the Bay Area; so far, only one has invited her in for an exploratory interview, in case it might be hiring in the future. "I'm trying to make the most of it," she says, "but it's frustrating at times."

Indeed, times are bleak. The national unemployment rate is steadily climbing; in January, it hit 7.6 percent, with the architecture and engineering industry sector shedding some 9,600 jobs. As credit remains frozen, and work dries up in the U.S. and abroad, firms large and small are cutting staff.

Nobody is immune from getting laid off in this depressed economy, experts say. For those who have lost their job—or fear losing it—the near future does not look promising. There are strategies, however, that architects can employ to ensure their longevity in the profession.

The pink slip

Susan Heathfield, a Michigan-based human resources consultant, says she always tells people to "live your life as if it's the last day you are going to be employed." Even employees who feel secure should take pro-active measures—such as updating résumés, lining up references, and joining social networking sites like LinkedIn—to equip themselves for a job search. Architects should also collect all material they need from the office, from e-mail addresses to sketch books, given that pink-slipped employees are not always given ample time to clean out their desks and computers.

Those who do get laid off should try negotiating their severance packages, whether that means asking for extended health insurance coverage or more severance pay. In the professional services industry, Heathfield says, the average severance pay is roughly two weeks compensation for every year worked for the company.

Beyond pay and benefits, ask for the firm's "cooperation in finding a new position," says Michael Strogoff, AIA, a California-based management consultant and chair of the AIA's Practice Management Knowledge Community advisory group.Employees might request a letter of recommendation, referrals, or use of a workspace. In addition, they should ask for an exit interview and use it as a chance to solicit constructive feedback on their performance. And while some might not feel comfortable lobbing this query, laid-off employees should ask if there is an opportunity to continue working for the firm in some capacity, as a part-time employee or consultant. "I think it's entirely appropriate to have a conversation and leave on good terms, smarter terms," Strogoff says. "The more enlightened firms are making sure they have those conversations with those they need to lay off."

What next?

Jobless architects should remember that "first and foremost, it's the market, not you," says Billy Clark, director of Jack Kelly & Partners, a recruitment agency for the design industry. While architects may need to take a few days—or weeks or months—to muster up the energy and confidence needed for the job hunt, Clark says they should assemble their portfolio and résumé immediately. The longer one waits, the more difficult the task becomes. "Do it the minute you get laid off," he emphasizes.

When the job market is fierce, a standout résumé is vital. Clark says many of the résumés he sees aren't professional enough, noting that they should list projects and clearly describe the architect's role in those projects. Dana Byrne, a senior human resources manager at RMJM, offers these additional résumé tips: target them to the receiver, use graphics sparingly, and proofread fastidiously. Also, ensure all correspondence is professional—and drop names. "We're in a no-holds-barred situation here," she says. "You need to separate yourself from the pack." For candidates who are offered an exploratory interview, go for it, she says. "You still want to try and get face time, so when the time comes, you're on their mind."

Job hunters should also reach out to everyone they know—friends, former coworkers, old classmates, consultants, contractors. That's what Michael Murno, AIA, who has largely worked on institutional projects during his 40-year career, has been doing since he was laid off in December from a large firm in New York. In addition to calling hospitals and school associations to see if they need a consultant, he's reaching out to his contacts at Pratt Institute, where he previously taught construction courses.

Munro has slogged through prior economic downturns—he hung wallpaper in the 1970s, when construction in the U.S. was at a standstill—but he feels this recession might be worse because the financial system is crumbling. "I never thought I would ever, ever go through this again," he says. "These days are terrible."

Hunting for a job

When Angelina Pinto, 27, graduated in 2006 with a B.Arch from the University of Texas at Austin, finding employment was relatively easy. Now, she's spending up to 10 hours a day hunting for a position after getting laid off in December from a leading firm in New York. "I'm contacting every single person I know, looking through the AIA directory, looking at every single firm," she says. The occasional job opening she does spot typically requires five-plus years of experience. "Getting a job is harder and harder," she says. "There are fewer and fewer jobs."

Is anyone hiring? "I'm getting many more requests on the civil engineering side," says Carol Metzner of Metzner Group, a recruitment agency for architects, engineers, and planners. Designers with résumés she would have "once drooled over" are now looking at other types of jobs; she just placed one candidate, for instance, at an architecture firm looking for a director of federal programs.

Indeed, there seems to be a smattering of openings at firms with government commissions. Firms focused on institutional work—particularly healthcare—have advertised openings, although even that once-impervious sector is now taking a hit. For architects able to relocate, there are reportedly opportunities in Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. And of course, many are optimistic that President Barack Obama's $787-billion stimulus plan will pump life into the design and construction industries.

The reality is, though, that even top candidates might not be able to land a position right now. How do they ride out the recession?

"You have to get creative as to what type of work you're willing to do," Clark says. While few industries are recession-proof, architects might find work in fields such as graphic design, computer modeling, store branding, facility management, surveying, and product sales. Paola Tocci, president of FD+CC, a company that provides pre-construction services such as cost estimating and scheduling, recently announced at a forum in New York City for unemployed architects that her company is hiring. "Think outside of the box and learn a new set of skills," she told the crowd.

Facing a bleak job market after graduating from The Bartlett School of Architecture last year, Alastair Stokes, in London, chose to try his hand at project management. "I'm working for a charity that has been working on moving to larger premises," he says. His job is to oversee all aspects of the project: finding a site, dealing with an architect and contractor, helping raise funds, providing quality control. "I have found this to be a very useful job coming out of university, going from a world where really anything is possible if you can imagine it," he explains, "to one where there are serious budgets and people at the end of the phone. It has been intense and often painful training."

Those forced to take a non-professional job should try aligning it with their design interests. Architects with a proclivity for hospitality projects, for instance, could get a job at a hotel. It's not the most uplifting solution, but when the recession ends—and it will—they will have experience in their area of design expertise, rather than a résumé gap. "You really have to focus on connecting the dots for people," Clark says. "Weave the story so it makes sense."

Stay involved

Ben Robbins, a Denver architect who has logged five years in the profession, was halfway through taking his licensing exams when he was let go from a small firm in October. He hasn't sat idle. In addition to completing his exams and becoming a registered architect, he's kept busy sprucing up his résumé, combing the Internet for job posts, and networking. He also is volunteering at the local art institute. "What I've really gotten into is doing student juries," he says. "It's a way to stay fresh and keep my skills polished."

For jobless architects who want to stay in the profession—and keep their spirits elevated—staying active is crucial. This could mean taking continuing education courses, preparing for exams, serving on community boards, organizing city tours, or volunteering at local schools or civic organizations. It could also mean embarking on a more personal endeavor, such as building furniture or starting a blog. Alec Heehs, a 48-year-old jobless designer in Manhattan, says he's preparing to take the licensing exams, while also helping a local nonprofit, Friends of the High Line, manage its Web site. "It's nice to be in a bustling office environment," he says.

Heehs also is attending Not Business As Usual workshops at New York's Center for Architecture, where topics include advocacy work, résumé building, and improving presentation skills. Sherida Paulsen, FAIA, principal of PKSB Architects and president of AIA New York, says the local chapter wasn't proactive enough in past downturns, when architects fled the profession. "This time we're trying to be prepared," she says. "We're trying to keep people engaged, trying to keep people involved in design and construction."

Robbins and his wife—she's a still-employed architect at a Denver firm—often joke that they spent so much time in school, and racked up so much student loan debt, that they should have become doctors. But despite the pitfalls, and the dismal job market, Robbins says he is determined to stick with architecture. "It's almost a curse, an affliction," he says of his trade, "but I don't think I would be content doing anything else."


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