In the past year, signs ranging from slowing manufacturing to dips in the Architectural Billings Index, as well as the cyclical nature of economic growth, have some worried that another downturn may be just around the corner. This three-part series will examine the ways in which architecture firms and practicing professionals can protect themselves against the potentially devastating effects of a recession.
Job hunting in a recession can be daunting, particularly for recent graduates with a limited portfolio or pool of professional contacts. Here, career advisers and practitioners offer advice on how best to prepare and improve your chances of landing a job.
When opportunities are scarce and competition is fierce, emerging designers who can articulate their skills and strengths to potential employers have a leg up on their competition, says Jacki Schaefer, career and alumni specialist at the Rice University School of Architecture, in Houston. Being detail-oriented and hardworking is not enough, she says. “There’s a lot of soul-searching you have to do.”
For inspiration in developing a portfolio and personal elevator pitch, Schaefer advises students to survey their classmates. “Compare portfolios and ask them for their opinion on what you do that’s different,” Schaefer says. “Your classmates are watching you when you present, so they’re paying attention.” Also ask professors and alumni for feedback. “One opinion is great, but 10 is fantastic,” she says. “Get a consensus.”
When actively applying for positions, keep your resume and portfolio up to date and ready to go. Research the job and company, and write a tailored cover letter. The more you know about an organization, its projects, and its culture, “the better you’re able to show in your cover letter why you are a fit,” says Lou Ecken Kidd, director of career and professional development at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan.
Resumes submitted through LinkedIn or other online applications should contain ample skills-related SEO keywords to make them easily discoverable and to distinguish qualified candidates. “Recent grads don’t list enough specific details of what they can do,” says Lisa Ganem, director of career services and alumni relations at the NewSchool of Architecture & Design in New York. “They assume that because they’re an architecture [graduate], everyone knows what they can do.”
A niche skill with real-world application, such as proficiency with a specific software program, can be particularly desirable. Schaefer, who taught herself BIM and has trained others in it, had multiple job offers when she graduated in 2009 with a B.Arch. from Rice. Not only did she negotiate a better salary, she stayed employed when the firm downsized from 150 employees to 35 during the Great Recession.
A network of industry connections is useful in any economy, but critical in a downturn. Request informational interviews with working architects to learn more about their career trajectory, the profession in general, and a specific firm and its culture. Because cold calling can be intimidating, Kidd advises starting with alumni or recent grads, who are always “interested in hearing what’s currently happening at [their alma mater].” She also recommends attending networking events held by the school, industry organizations such as local AIA components, and national conferences.
Joshua Zinder, AIA, principal of Princeton, N.J.–based architecture firm Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design, recommends networking with people who aren’t architects as well. Undergraduate and graduate programs are a key time for establishing long-term relationships with classmates who may go on to work for or become future clients.
Don’t Give Up on Licensure
Earning experience hours that count toward licensure is challenging in a recession when jobs are scarce, but not impossible. NCARB Setting O is an alternative path in the Architectural Experience Program that allows candidates to accumulate professional hours without being employed at an architecture firm. To aggregate hours, candidates can enter a design competition, volunteer with an approved charitable organization, enroll in continuing education, work in construction, and more. Some require verification by a licensed architect, which can provide another opportunity to cultivate a connection and possible reference, Zinder notes.
Work for Yourself
In 2009, when Ann Arbor, Mich.–based Synedoche Design Studio founders Lisa Sauve, AIA, and Adam Smith, Assoc. AIA, graduated from Lawrence Technological University, in Michigan, no one was hiring and summer internships “were even less likely,” Sauve says. Rather than scramble for jobs, the duo began working on their first project, a small graphic design office that they found on Craigslist while in school. The project, which caused them to miss their own graduation ceremony, won an award and helped win them their next client.
For those who go out on their own, Sauve advises befriending local small businesses for leads on potential projects. “We feel like we have more in common with other small business owners in the community,” she says. “We’re all trying to grow and succeed together.” Let your school’s career office and local AIA components know that you’re available to take on short-term work, such as taking measurements or drawing floor plans, Ganem suggests.
Because recessions affect industries and cities differently, recent grads should be open to relocating for a job and consider alternative opportunities. Schaefer regularly tells her students to think creatively about opportunities possible with an architectural degree: “Good design is needed everywhere.” Having tracked the careers of Rice University’s architecture graduates since 2000, she notes that half of those with a B.Arch. degree eventually elect not to work at an architecture firm at all.
Construction management, real estate development, forensic architecture, furniture making, and fabrication are all related fields that benefit from the skills and training an architecture graduate offers. Furthermore, the experience and knowledge gained from ths work can be advantageous when the market improves and architecture firms resume hiring, Zinder says. Even working as a real estate agent can provide insight on what homeowners want, which is useful for residential design.
Alternatively, Ganem suggests seeking opportunities in more recession-proof industries, such as food and beverage, hospitality, information technology, facilities management, and health and senior services that often have in-house design departments. Other possibilities include government agencies, trade show producers, and gaming companies.
If a designer has exhausted all potential opportunities, do anything, because “someone who’s continuously employed is someone who’s employable and worth talking to,” Zinder says. Sauve, for example, photographed weddings on the weekends while Smith shot video for his alma mater. Ganem notes that Airbnb offers a feature where architects can host architecture tours for extra income. “In a recession," Zinder says, "you have to be the one who’s the most eager and willing to go out there and pursue the job.”