It doesn’t take a neurosurgeon to recognize that a lot of Americans are in a lot of pain. Even if Congress manages to enact a world-class healthcare system in our lifetimes, it won’t cure the unemployment that’s crippling the nation right now. In October, the jobless rate hit 10.2 percent—or 17.5 percent, if you include those who have quit looking for work or have taken part-time gigs for lack of full-time options. Wall Street may be on the rebound, but the rest of the country is lurching toward that infamous benchmark—the 25 percent unemployment rate of the Great Depression.
Job stats for building design and construction look even worse than the national average. A survey by AIA Nevada, for instance, reports 65 percent industry unemployment in Las Vegas. The posts on architectmagazine.com and archinect.com are rife with recession-induced tales of woe. But an exquisite kind of pain is reserved for current architecture students and recent grads, who are entering the workforce with profoundly limited prospects in their chosen profession. Forget the bustling job fairs and multiple offers from a couple of years ago. Spring 2007 was another era. Now imagine graduating straight into your parent’s basement and an $8.50-an-hour job as a barista—that is, if the local Starbucks is hiring.
Many of today’s most famous architects—Zaha Hadid and Thom Mayne, for instance—suffered recession pains early in their careers. When SOM wasn’t hiring, the then-popular alternative was to teach, which paid the rent and supplied a stream of cheap (i.e., free) student labor for the invention of radical forms, ruminations on post-structuralist theory, and submissions to international design competitions. That first big win must have felt fantastic, like the heady rush a hedge fund manager gets these days when the bonus check clears. Alas, the schools aren’t hiring either.
Does it matter? Students and recent graduates today seem to have a different set of goals than their celebrated elders. Consider the American Institute of Architecture Students’ (AIAS) admirable Freedom by Design program [“Utilitas, Truly”]. Denver architect Brad Buchanan founded the program five years ago for students to provide design/build services for the elderly and disabled. Already, 57 schools are participating.
The success of Freedom by Design makes me guess (and, honestly, hope) that social justice, environmental stewardship, and financial responsibility are proving as important to the class of 2009 as creative license did to its predecessors. In this month’s Crit article, “Design for (Public) Life”, newly minted University of Maryland architecture alum Dan Reed opens a window into the world of a recent graduate during this Great Recession. There were no opportunities for him at architecture firms, but Reed luckily was able to land a job with his county councilman, where he’s working on planning and zoning issues. “Is this what I intended to do after college?” he asks.
Not at all. I would like to enter the design profession when the economy improves. But as local governments around the country struggle to counteract 50 years of sprawl and disinvestment, they’ll need people to show them how, and I’m glad to help.
I wish every architecture school grad could have an experience like Reed’s, but I fear such positive alternative career opportunities are few and far between. The stimulus act had many Americans, myself included, dreaming up WPA-style programs to get architects back to work, making an honest living by designing solutions to some of our country’s most pressing problems. That hasn’t happened, at least not nearly to the degree so many of us had hoped.
Where are all the commissions for new, net zero community centers, schools, libraries, post offices, and train stations? Why aren’t firms hiring again, flush with government projects? Just as importantly, where are the 21st century equivalents of FDR’s HABS (the Historic American Buildings Survey), which sent out-of-work architects around the country to draw up plans of national landmarks?
At this point, I’m highly doubtful that the federal government will be coming to architecture’s rescue. No other power on Earth is capable of job creation on the Biblical scale that’s needed right now, but the profession must do its best to bridge the gap. Our first priority should be fostering the next generation, ensuring that a lack of jobs today doesn’t result in mass defections of skill and passion to other, less beleaguered professions. The talent emerging from our architecture schools is too valuable to waste. How can you help? For starters, you can read the important message from the AIAS that appears below:
If you were asked your thoughts on emerging professionals in architecture today, what would you share? Nostalgia over long nights spent in studio? A desire to reclaim the innocence of design, one without budgets or timelines? Contempt for technology and the loss of an art form? Or sympathy for a generation facing a void of opportunity?
Even in today’s economic climate, young leaders in architecture have the power to radically impact the built environment, and no profession is more committed to the training and assessment of its students and interns than architecture. Educators, practitioners, and regulators alike take great care to ensure theory and technical skills are taught in the classroom, reinforced on the job, and measured through exam. But there is so much more to being an architect. Especially when times are tough, students must be shown, through example, the concept of professional commitment. They must understand, through experience, the value of leadership and communication skills. And they must be encouraged, time and time again, to contribute to the communities where they study, work, and live.
Poverty, climate change, food supply, energy shortages, healthcare pitfalls, and educational gaps are all challenges young architects will face. What students learn in the classroom must be complemented by the wisdom and experience of those who have come before them. Through the help of architects, product manufacturers, educators, and nonprofit leaders, the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) has made it its mission to show students that life happens outside studio. Through its leadership conferences, advocacy work, career fairs, community service programs, and design competitions, the AIAS challenges students to move beyond their comfort zones and be the leaders the profession wants and so desperately needs.
Over the past two years the AIAS has worked hard to raise more than $1.1 million to support its programs and meet the challenges of today and those of the future. But the work is not done. Students need your help. Architects of all ages have an opportunity and a responsibility to reach out to the future of the profession. Hire an intern. Mentor. Volunteer. Teach. Participate. Give. Do something to ensure students of this generation are not lost, but rather equipped to be both the architects of their careers and the architects of the world we share.
To truly be successful, emerging leaders must be shown that life happens outside of studio. And that must come from you.
For more information about the organization and to learn about ways you can help, visit aias.org.