The findings of the recent BD employment survey in the UK, revealing that 22% of British architects are unemployed, certainly makes for unpleasant reading, but it is important to look beyond the upsetting numbers to figure out what they mean.
Much more than a simple number showing the rate of UK unemployment, a closer look at the results highlights problems, exposes trends, and dispels myths - from the assumed truth that London is an employment "oasis" to the supposed strength the profession has shown in this economic crisis.
Read more analysis of the survey results, after the break...
The most commonly quoted figure from the survey is the fact that 22% of British architects are unemployed. Already a shocking statistic in itself, this hides a more disturbing fact: 9% of respondents were listed as 'employed in a non-architecture-related business'.
Admittedly, a number of factors are unclear from this statistic: there is no way of knowing whether 'non-architecture-related business' refers to another branch of design or an entirely different sector of the economy; whether these architects left the profession out of choice or necessity; or whether these jobs are low-paid and entry-level or high-powered and well-paid. It is most likely this category contains a mixture of all these possibilities, in unknown ratios. But from the point of view of the strength of the profession, the fact remains that for a variety of reasons one in ten architects, who have gone through many years of training to gain full qualification, seem to have abandoned a career in architecture to find work elsewhere.
Another interesting dimension of the survey is the way it dispels certain myths about the UK architecture industry. London is often spoken of as a land of opportunity, a place where work continues whilst the rest of the country grinds to a halt. This view is reinforced by a cursory glance at any architecture job board, which are usually dominated by London practices searching for talent.
However, the survey shows that almost half of unemployed UK architects live in London. With information suggesting that London is home to around half of all UK architects (employed or not), this means that the unemployment rate in the capital is in line with national figures. In other words, though it is true that there are more opportunities in London, these are balanced by more competition for jobs.
Another myth that the survey casts new light upon is a commonly held belief among experienced professionals, which is often expressed to students and young architects, that recession is - to an extent - good for young architects. The logic goes that lower employment rates force graduates to innovate and find robust ways to survive in the profession which serve them for years to come.
Now over four years into the economic crisis, BD's survey shows 44% of non-qualified graduates are unemployed, and a further 18% are in non-architecture-related work. It is of course difficult to predict what the long term consequences of the recession will be for this group, but the fact that only 38% of them have found a way into the profession at all should make us question the truth of the belief above.
In her analysis of the survey, BD's editor-in-chief Amanda Baillieu says that part of the problem is down to systematic issues in the profession:
"What is a profession actually for if it can no longer hold on to those values which are supposed to bind it together? A fragile and weak economy cannot be blamed entirely. Some of these values have been under attack for many years and this government has simply made it much worse."
She refers to a "witch-hunt against anyone who believes design can improve people's lives", and blames a devaluing of the skills of architects partially on a failure by RIBA to "tackle fees" - although Angela Brady, president of RIBA has responded by saying that even recommended fee scales have been made illegal by the Office for Fair Trading.
Baillieu also singles out architectural education, saying:
"Schools cannot carry on churning out architects - too many of them poorly educated - pursuing unpaid or lowly paid jobs with no future."
The Chief Executive of BDP Peter Drummond holds the opposite opinion to Baillieu, however, given the severity of the economic situation, he says:
"I'm really amazed and quite in admiration of the way medium and small firms have adapted and changed according to the circumstances. The fact that there haven't been more casualties is amazing; it shows the profession is fundamentally strong."
As with all survey statistics though, perhaps the most important thing to take from these numbers is the fact that they represent thousands of sad and highly individual stories. BD and its staff members shared some of the more poignant anecdotal responses via twitter in the lead-up to publishing the results:
"As a senior architect (late 50s) who is versatile and with a specific speciality, there are zero employment prospects."
"New mom back to work, seeing first hand how hard it is to work in architecture and balance family. Staying late hard to avoid."
"At this practice, all staff have taken significant pay cuts - in my case a 60% cut."
"Award winning architect: 8 months, 127 job applications, 6 replies, 2 interviews and no job."