Architecture press is buzzing with recent Bureau of Labor Statistics reports on unemployment and self-employment figures for those in the architecture field. The media have taken this data and made a plentitude of fearful predictions about the dark future of the architecture profession: there are more too many graduates, seemingly few positions, higher educational requirements and less prestige for the profession as a whole. They paint a somewhat dismal picture, both for those entering the field and those in mid-career, who are looking to start a firm.
The BLA Statistics and a recent study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education offer the following as signs of difficulty and doom:
- Licensing requirements (for architects) include not only a professional degree in architecture (4-6 years of schooling), but also at least 3 years of practical work, training, and passing all divisions of the Architect Registration Examination
- Architecture graduates face stiff competition, especially for jobs in the most prestigious firms
- Undergraduate architecture students are facing 13.9 percent unemployment rates
- About 21 percent of architects are self-employed—almost 3 times the proportion for all occupations
While these statistics could take one down a road of despair, there is more to the story. The reality is that the architecture field has naturally changed with a changing world. All professions are undergoing a profound evolution on several fronts: demographic, education and economic. These changes are not all bad, and actually may provide the basis for optimism.
“Architecture was historically a gentleman’s profession,” said Michael Porter, AIA during an interview we conducted for Success by Design. He went on to say, “Even as recently as 50 years ago, architects were almost always male, came from wealthy families and pursued the career as a symbol of philanthropy more than for financial gain.”
In recent decades, the bias against women and minorities has lifted, and now many architecture programs have almost equal male to female populations. Social standing is no longer a prerequisite to success in the architecture filed. This is positive development that we ought to embrace. Of course, the numbers of graduates has increased, thus putting pressure on employment prospects, but the fact that the architecture profession has embraced greater diversity should be applauded. If it is difficult to match these greater numbers with existing jobs, what can be done to help them develop careers in adjacent industries? Changes in how students and post-graduates are trained provides the key.
There are two aspects to think about. First, while architecture has seemingly raised the bar by moving most programs to five or six years of schooling, together with post-graduate training and practical work experience, architecture is not all that dissimilar from the medical field or legal field whose graduates also face stiff competition for the larger firm jobs and require not only extended schooling, but rigorous preparation to pass an exam that gives them entre in one’s chosen field. Ensuring that those entering a profession, which comes with significant responsibility, are prepared is also a good thing.
Having said that, especially in these uncertain economic times, architecture schools can do more to prepare their students for a career. Universities have done a fine job on the technical front to provide architects with the skills needed to design. Unfortunately, however, there is a glaring blind spot on the business side. Most students leave with a single course in professional practices, at best. Rarely do they learn about marketing, client relations, strategic thinking or business development, which are the core skills that can set them apart, make them invaluable hires, and prepare them to run their own business down the road.
Graduates are also hard pressed to learn these skills on the job. Depending on the culture, size and infrastructure of the firms who employ them in their early career, they may never get access to this information. Unfortunately, the AIA offers slim continuing education in the areas of professional practice. Recent graduates and those seeking a career change are left with little more than networking events and conventions as resources to discuss business challenges and meet peers. What else can they do to try to prepare? Inspiration is an important tool.
The entire world is suffering a recession and employment is down across the board. This is an invitation for architecture schools to consider how to better prepare their students with business tools and real world experience. During my book research, I met with leaders like Art Gensler, Steven Ehlich and Lauren Rottet. We did not talk about their design philosophy, but rather about their approach to their businesses. Our discussion ran the gamut from how they started their companies (literally, who paid rent and how did they get clients) to how they survived the inevitable recessions and challenges that affected their particular niche.
Rottet points to diversification in terms of the type of work they take, as well as where throughout the world they pursue work, as ways her firm has stayed strong. Gensler took on the work no one wanted (interiors) and built relationships with those clients that made his firm known international. Ehrlich has arranged his firm atelier style and consciously keeps the decision-making democratic. He also acknowledges that his two partners have different skill sets, which helps the business run better on all fronts.
Like many of the other entrepreneurs, in professions and industries across the board, who I have interviewed over the years, the architects profiled in Success by Design had to figure it out on their own by making mistakes, being proactive and testing ideas. Elisa Garcia points to the value of having a strong mentor, while Barry Berkus, ever the maverick, pursued modular housing and design build before either were mainstream. Allison Williams, a talented designer, knew she would need business skills if she wanted to grow her own company. Williams sought colleagues that could teach her how to develop fees, write contracts, staff an office and use various software to get the firm up and running.
This drive, curiosity and willingness to learn skills beyond core architecture are what made these folks navigate the unknown and excel through both recessions and steep competition.
We should take a second look at the statistic that 21% of architects run their own shop. Rather than portray it as a bad thing, why not improve undergraduate education to cultivate these future entrepreneurs? Why not introduce more students and recent graduates to the stories of those who have found success? This is a critical time for practitioners to seek advice from other freelancers and business owners.
All professions evolve. While it may appear that the basic foundation of the architecture profession has shifted seismically, current students, recent graduates and even those seeking a mid-career change all have much to learn from and be inspired by architects such as these. Understanding how a diverse group of architects have grown successful businesses of different types will help those struggling in the current environment to do the same.