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Exactly How Many Architects in the U.S. Are Unemployed?

October 25, 2010

By C. J. Hughes

In the past two years, the recession has taken its toll on the profession, leaving many hunting for work. Exactly how many architects are unemployed, however, can be the subject of debate. Assessing the jobless rate for the design profession can produce wildly disparate results—and architects, economists, and recruiters aren’t precisely sure how bad things are.

Part of the problem, they say, stems from the fact that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lumps architects under its sweeping “Architecture and Engineering Occupations” category, which is tilted heavily toward engineers. In fact, of the 20 job types in that category [see sidebar], 18 are engineering-related, including aerospace, nuclear power, and mining.

SURVEYED JOB TYPES

Below is a list of the job types included in the U.S. Labor Department’s “Architecture and Engineering Occupations Category.” The current unemployment rate for this group is 5.9 percent.

Architects, except naval
Aerospace engineers
Agricultural engineers
Biomedical engineers
Chemical engineers
Civil engineers
Computer hardware engineers
Drafters
Electrical and electronics engineers
Engineers, all other
Engineering technicians, except drafters
Environmental engineers
Industrial engineers, including health and safety
Marine engineers and naval architects
Materials engineers
Mechanical engineers
Mining and geological engineers, including mining safety engineers
Nuclear engineers 
Petroleum engineers
Surveyors, cartographers, and photogrammetrists

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Sometimes, that lopsidedness seems to matter. In the second quarter of 2010, for instance, the unemployment rate for the entire category was 5.9 percent, while the smaller architecture sub-category was 13 percent—a spread of more than seven points.

Yet much of the time, the rates in the architecture and engineering categories are about the same. In the first quarter of 2010, for example, the overall category¹s unemployment rate was 7.2 percent, while the rate for the smaller subset of architects was 8.3. Similarly, in other recent quarters, the two rates were separated by only a couple percentage points.

Unreliable Statistics
But attempts to dissect the data are not wise, economists say.

Only 60,000 households are surveyed for the entire employment category, for all types of jobs. The “Architecture and Engineering Occupations” category accounts for roughly 1,300 of those households. Of those homes, about 100 usually contain architects, licensed or not, which is almost too small of a percentage to be statistically significant, according to Luke Spreen, a bureau economist.

There’s just way too much fluctuation that can occur with such a tiny sample, making the data on that micro-level unreliable—so unreliable that the Bureau does not even publish the architecture statistic alone, Spreen explains. Thus, when Architectural Record has used federal unemployment data, it historically has gone with the figure for the overall Architecture and Engineering Occupations, as it is the one recommended by the Bureau.

Also distorting the unemployment numbers, perhaps, is the census researchers who visit and telephone homes for their data don’t count architects as unemployed if they’ve taken a job in, say, the restaurant business.

In fact, in that case, the researchers would actually chalk up a job for the hospitality sector instead of subtracting one in architecture, says Lisa Williamson, a bureau economist. The result of that type of methodology is that architects could seem far more employed than they actually are, she explains. “It’s a hard thing to pin down because this economy is complex and constantly changing,” Williamson admits.

Figure Is Too Low
Even the 13 percent unemployment figure is too low, some architects argue, particularly in parts of the West that saw a huge construction booms followed by crashes that have left the economy there in tatters.

In Phoenix, Arizona, about 20 percent of all architects are out of work, according to Philip Weddle, president-elect of the city’s AIA chapter. His analysis is based on anecdotal evidence, but also because his firm, Weddle Gilmore Architects, receives 10 resumes a week now versus about 10 a month a few years ago.

Many architects are forced to take jobs outside of the design field. “There are younger people working at Home Depot with master’s degrees,” Weddle says. “You wonder whether or not they will be lost to the profession forever.”

In Montana, meanwhile, the unemployment rate is higher, at 30 percent, says architect Kent Bray, president of that state’s chapter, who based his estimate on personal observations. His firm, CTA Architects Engineers, of which he is a principal, has felt the economic sting, too: It’s reduced its staff by 20 percent in the last two years and closed an Idaho office.

“We’re a hard group to track,” Bray adds, because about half the country’s licensed architects, or 47,000 of 102,000, are not AIA members.

AIA’s Stance
Even within the AIA, tracking unemployment is logistically tough because it requires lots of manpower, according to Kermit Baker, the AIA’s chief economist. “It would be a pretty daunting job,” he says.

Instead, Baker uses federal payroll statistics—based on information collected by census workers from businesses (as opposed to households)—to estimate architecture’s joblessness, which he puts “in the low to mid 20s.”

How he got there: In July 2008, architecture firms employed about 221,000 people, including architects and support staff. By July 2010, that number had plummeted to 167,000, which represents a drop of 24 percent. Thus, about a quarter of the work force is unemployed, he reasons. 

Baker adds that more than half of a firm’s employees may be support staff and not architects, but both groups are usually laid off proportionally when cuts occur,

Other architects may not turn up on unemployment head counts at all, like foreigners here on behalf of H1B visas, who have to leave the country soon after their position are axed, according to industry analysts.

The “Underemployment” Problem
Focusing on the unemployment rate alone may be missing a larger point: Many architects who have managed to hang on to their jobs are making less money. In these “underemployment” cases, workers have had to take unpaid furloughs of two weeks or more, or they’ve been let go and rehired as short-term contractors for lower pay.

Other times, employees who were retained have faced salary cuts of 10 percent to 50 percent just to stay on the payroll, says Kerry Harding, president of the Talent Bank, a Washington, D.C.-based recruiter with firms as clients.

In fact, when the massive firm HNTB shuttered its D.C. office earlier this year, and its architects were absorbed by an existing HNTB office in Arlington, Virginia, some employees saw their salaries whacked from $150,000 to $80,000, he explains. “These last two years have been very sad,” Harding says. “I have seen people broken.” An HNTB spokeswoman confirmed the moves but wouldn’t discuss salaries.

Schools Optimistic 
Schools may be even less useful than government agencies, in terms of tracking the employment rates of their graduates; few seem to do so formally, at least in ways that they will admit.

Yet recent graduates are finding work, even if they are branching into related fields— Web design, graphic design and animation, for example—to do so, says Jack Davis, FAIA, dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virgina Tech, in Blacksburg.

The profession’s recent struggles on the employment front don’t seem to be dissuading teenagers from wanting to pursue architecture, he says. Indeed, for this year, Virginia Tech had 1,100 applicants for 95 undergraduate slots and 400 for 35 master’s degree slots, both of which represented upticks, Davis says. “High-school students should realize,” he adds, “that this profession will be viable in the future.”

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