7 Ways to Attract Talent
Illustration: Michael Kirkham

What a difference eight years can make.

In 2008, the real estate bubble burst, the economy plunged into the Great Recession, and the architecture profession went into a deep spiral, with many observers wondering if it would ever recover. Architects nationwide were thrown out of work, credit evaporated, and projects were canceled en masse. Many young and promising but disenchanted professionals left the profession altogether.

Fast-forward eight years—an admittedly “slow” fast-forward for many—and a firm’s well-being is as much about economic capital as it is about human capital. Thanks in part to the record-low interest rates that have financed huge construction projects, human capital—as well as raw and seasoned talent—is in high demand. Fees are skyrocketing, firms are expanding, and it’s once again a seller’s market for practitioners.

All of which makes a just-released survey of professionals by the AIA California Council, “Attracting and Retaining Talent,” all the more relevant. Just as the profession itself has recovered, so has the ability for architects to choose not only where they work, but how much.

So it’s no surprise that the survey of some 500 professionals found that today, more than ever before, a firm’s future success depends on its ability to recruit—and retain—exceptional design professionals in architecture and closely related fields.

What Matters Most

Neither a firm’s history nor its published design works seem to matter to prospective or current employees, the survey found. What matters is the firm’s overall portfolio and what researchers call its “street reputation.” Another notable finding is that work-life balance matters to young architects just as much as big paychecks and benefits in estimating their overall picture of employment.

“Attracting and retaining talent is a challenge when times get tough and when times get really good … it’s hard in both of those situations,” notes Stephen Epstein, a consultant at Strogoff Consulting, which conducted the survey.

“When you have a recession, there are typically a lot of layoffs,” says Epstein. “But when things get good again, the people aren’t there to hire because they’ve left the profession, and people who are entrenched start looking around for other opportunities. So retaining that very top talent is key no matter what the economy is doing.”

“We see two issues that our industry is not adequately addressing,” he says, “attracting and retaining talent, and providing the necessary training to our profession’s future leaders.”

Among the study’s other major findings was that implementing a targeted recruitment and retention policy results in comprehensive operational benefits. Design professionals are also keenly interested in developing their leadership, business development, project management, and communications skills.

How to Attract and Retain

The findings lead to a series of recommendations by Strogoff, many of which are geared to attracting and retaining the young emerging professionals so crucial to maintaining a firm’s collective imagination and focus. Among them:

  1. Model work-life balance in their own lives and reinforce its importance in daily practice.
  2. Place strong emphasis on leadership development training for emerging leaders and design leaders, as well as the firm’s most senior leaders. This training should enhance traditional design leadership skills.
  3. Ensure advancement by tailoring the organizational structure to create ongoing promotion opportunities worthy of pursuit by ambitious design professionals.
  4. Develop a formal mentoring program specifically aimed at nurturing relationships between emerging designers and senior technical mentors.
  5. Work with key employees to create a career development action plan, and then coach them throughout the plan’s implementation.
  6. Create a clear path for advancement by tailoring the organizational structure to create ongoing promotion opportunities worthy of pursuit by ambitious design professionals.
  7. Create clear opportunities for assuming increasing levels of responsibility and cross-functional assignments.

“What was really interesting, and surprised me as one of the most important factors—not only to Millennials but all generations—was work-life balance,” says Michael Strogoff, FAIA, founder of Strogoff.

“In my generation, people were much more willing to pull all-nighters, doing anything it took to work on good projects and get the experience,” he says. “The younger generation is really committed to having a more balanced life.”