November 17th was the day the last domino fell for Larry Fredlund. A project manager at a small Minnesota architecture firm, Fredlund took on increasing responsibilities over his eight years there, eventually running a $70 million high school construction project. Since getting his B.Arch. from North Dakota State University in 1993, Fredlund had worked without interruption in a series of progressively more senior architectural jobs. Then came 2008, the year of the ruthless domino effect: Housing construction stopped; school bonds weren't passed; the firm's projects were put on ice; and Fredlund was laid off.
Now, with four children and three stepchildren to support, Fredlund is taking side work—spec writing and a basement remodel—and searching for a full-time position. He has sent his résumé to more than 70 firms in the Twin Cities area, receiving responses such as:
Thank you for your impressive and comprehensive résumé. Unfortunately, we also share [your former employer's] presumed situation. We have sadly had to lay off well-qualified staff for lack of available work and may have to yet cut deeper.
I did review your information per your cover letter, and you certainly have a very solid résumé and experience. I don't know if you heard, but we recently had a layoff of six experienced architectural staff, and we're looking out to 2009 for some sign of an upturn in our markets. Frankly, at this point, it's well into next year before we see a need to hire again, considering the work we have and expect to have.
But nothing quite captures the pain of job hunting in a major recession so much as this auto-reply that popped up in Fredlund's inbox:
As of 11/10/08, I will no longer be employed by [firm name]. Please contact the front desk person at 651-xxx-xxxx.
"Ha-ha," Fredlund grimly joked in an e-mail, "now the people hiring people are no longer working at the firms!;"
How many architects have lost their jobs since the downturn began? It's impossible to cite an up-to-date figure, because—unfortunately—the waves of layoffs keep coming. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that employment in architectural and engineering services fell by 10,000 in November and by another 7,000 the following month.
"Architecture firms are certainly feeling the effects of the economic crisis," noted Scott Frank, an AIA spokesman, in an e-mail. "As credit lines dried up, many projects that were on the boards were put on hold or scrapped altogether. This, along with a general downturn in demand for design services, has forced firms to reduce staff."
In late December, Crain's Chicago Business reported that some Chicago-area firms were laying off 10 percent to 30 percent of staff , with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) cutting more than 100 people from its Chicago office. Sources say that SOM shed about 80 people in New York, as well, and that nationwide, employees have been let go by such respected firms as Gehry Partners (three rounds, 30 people, allegedly); Diller Scofidio + Renfro; Gensler; and Robert A.M. Stern Architects.
Anyone who follows the news would guess that the residential, retail, and hospitality sectors are faring the worst, and that seems to be the case. Phoenix-area architect Paul Johnson lost his job in November, after work dried up at the 10-person firm he worked for (which did almost "a hundred percent developer projects," he says). The firm then responded to as many RFPs as it could, but most were for higher education and government work, and it lacked expertise in those areas. On the other side of the country, in New York, intern architect Esther Cheung fell victim to layoffs at an award-winning restaurant and residential design firm that, she says, had to cut about 25 percent of its architectural staff when residential clients started to pull out of projects.