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With Jobs Scarce, Will Young Architects Flee the Profession?

April 21, 2009

By C. J. Hughes

Ben Strauss
Photo © Craig Mitchelldyer for Architectural Record
After getting laid off, Ben Straus started selling homemade ice cream to help pay the bills.

In 2006, after Ben Straus earned an architecture degree from Carnegie Mellon University, he foresaw a long career of designing offices, hospitals, and university buildings.

Instead, after being laid off in January from Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects in Portland, Oregon, Straus finds himself selling $6 pints of homemade ice cream out of his kitchen for Presidential Sweets, his new business. (Sample flavor: Vanillard Fillmore.)

Still, even though Straus, 25, doesn’t expect to land a comparable architecture job for many months, he also isn’t opening up an ice cream parlor just yet. “I really love the profession. I chose it for a reason, and it’s become part of my life,” he says. “I don’t think I could ever give it up.”

In the first quarter of this year, the architecture and engineering sector in the U.S. shed 88,000 jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Though the ages of the unemployed aren’t officially known—the agency doesn’t release them—anecdotal evidence suggests many are like Straus: under 40. And these early to mid-level architects, frustrated by job searches that can yield just one interview for every 100 e-mailed resumes, are often taking jobs in other fields, design-related or otherwise.

While there’s some worry among older architects that their younger counterparts could strike out in entirely new directions and exit the field permanently, which happened during recessions in the 1970s and early 1990s, young architects today don’t seem to be fleeing architecture for good—at least not yet.

“Our graduates aren’t running off, though they are redefining what they can do,” says Amy Crossette, a spokeswoman for the University of Texas at Austin School Architecture, which will graduate 110 students this spring, up from 85 last year.

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To help that reinvention, her school’s career center recently shifted its focus from placement to counseling about recession survival tips, largely in response to phone calls from worried parents. The office now promotes jobs that might be only loosely connected to architecture, such as working as a sustainability consultant; to improve hiring chances, it also encourages students to stay current with new versions of AutoCAD, AutoCAD Revit, and Google SketchUp after they graduate.

But AutoCAD skills don’t guarantee full-time employment. Despite being familiar with the software, plus having a master’s degree in architecture from the Savannah College of Art and Design, Sameer Panchal, 28, of Jersey City, New Jersey, has found work only three days a week at a Brooklyn firm, he says, and it’s for an hourly wage.

That said, Panchal won’t be changing careers anytime soon. As he explains, “when somebody selects architecture,” which for him was in ninth-grade, “they have a passion for it, and they understand there are bad times and downturns you have to go through.”

Even those who have no steady income other than unemployment checks seem upbeat about the profession’s fortunes, like Joe Stroming, 36, of Seattle, who was laid off last June from the Seattle office of Sienna Architecture. (The entire firm was shuttered in January.)

After sending out 175 resumes, only three of which netted interviews, Stroming applied for a job as a ski instructor this winter. He was offered the position, but it paid less than his unemployment checks, so he decided to pass and keep hunting. 

Stroming believes that in the near-future there will be opportunities for architects designing light-rail transportation stations and retirement homes; as local governments increasingly work to make existing built environments more energy efficient, they might add architects to their payrolls, too, he believes. “I think if you can make it through this, you won’t ever experience anything quite as bad,” Stroming says.

In many ways, Gen X and Y’s tenacity echoes that of some baby boomers, who graduated when architecture jobs were also scarce, which made backup plans necessary, says Bruce McMillan, AIA, a 63-year-old architect in Manhattan, Kansas. Soon after getting out of school in 1973, McMillan was laid off twice by the same Atlanta firm, which prompted him to take up a teaching career to make ends meet; today, McMillan’s an adjunct professor at Kansas State University but also runs his own five-employee firm.

“You need an insurance policy, something you can do to maintain yourself and your family during downturns,” says McMillan, who encourages his current students, many of whom are flirting with sidetracks in other occupations, to consider teaching as well. But, he adds, “I would advise anybody to build in whatever that may be.”

Still, some are giving architecture a total heave-ho, like Rachel Salvay, who, after being laid off from her San Francisco firm in May, and finding no design-related employment after a four-month search, has decided to become a pastry chef. Currently enrolled in a junior college with plans to graduate next winter, Salvay, 28, hopes to land full-time work with a specialty-cake decorator, she says.

But in a sense, her new calling is not wholly at odds with her former one. Cakes, like architectural models, force their creators to “think about looks, and how they will support themselves, and how you will transport them,” Salvay jokes. “It’s kind of eerie what the parallels are.”

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