Not all is well with the global economy. Eurozone is in crisis, and East Asian market is stalling, and North America (read: the US) is see-sawing until after the election. Of course, this is not news to people in the architecture profession, where many firms are just beginning to recover from the last four years of belt-tightening lay-offs and restructuring.
Here in the United States the unemployment rate, though varying state-to-state, is still painfully high nationally at 7.8%. In California it was 10.6% back in August. Compressing further down to Los Angeles where I am, it’s 10%. According to a report from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce the unemployment rate for recent architecture graduates was 13.9%, the highest among other fields.
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The real unemployment rate for architects is surely higher. The US Department of Labor cited a loss of 17.7% of architecture employees back in 2009. Additionally, according to an EMSI study spanning 2006-2011, there has been an overall 13.1% decline in architectural employment. The study also shows how some states were hit harder than others. As they cite, “The decline has been widespread, impacting Arizona (-28%), Nevada (-27%), and Florida (-24%) most on a percentage basis since 2006. Not coincidentally, those three states also lost the largest percentage of construction jobs during the recession (Nevada has lost an astounding 56% of its construction employment since ’06).”
According to the same study, California has experienced a drop of 14.9%. From my front-row seat here in Los Angeles, having seen how firms of all sizes have significantly reduced staff and have subsequently been agonizingly slow to hire due to continued uncertainty, that number is conservative at best.
What these numbers translate to is a floating population of architects and un-licensed designers out of work—including a significant number who can be called the long-term unemployed. Of course many of these long-term unemployed have dropped out of the statistics because they are no longer collecting unemployment and thus aren’t categorized as members of the unemployed. Additionally, many have given up looking for work in the field and have moved on to other types of work—those fortunate enough to be able to do this.
So what has happened to all those casualties of the recession who are still looking for architecture jobs? The state of architecture in the post-recession world is not singular. If the recession has done anything it has rendered an already multiple profession into yet further fragments and off-shoots. There are numerous ways to practice, including dropping out of practice altogether and doing the teaching thing, the think tank thing…the writing thing, maybe. Busy combinations of the above have become more and more necessary for those recession casualties still roaming the maze of what’s left of post-recession architecture. After weeks, months, and for some, years of unemployment or underemployment, people turn corners in this maze. They get lost. Maybe they find a way out. Maybe they reach the center…again.
So what is the new “normal” for firms these days? In one word: consulting. Hiring one or being one. Initially, this appeared to simply be a passing phase, a stop-gap measure deployed by multi-office firms being stretched by overstaffing. Thus, when 2010 rolled around and this particular author was still searching for work, it almost seemed like an anomaly to discover that some firms around town were hiring “consultants,” who, incidentally, were to receive no benefits. In fact, in one anecdote, a residential firm owner went to a seminar and returned to declare—in secret—that he learned the best way to save money during the recession was to lay off full-time employees and then rehire consultants for those positions. This strategy, he was informed, would save a great deal of money (read: liability) because not only would he not be responsible for paying taxes or benefits, he would also not have to worry about paying unemployment once the projects ran out. And, he was reassured, this would be accepted by any potential employees because “the economy was so bad.”
This practice has become the new normal. In fact, it is the new normal across different business sectors. The most recent Labor Department numbers indicate this disturbing yet logical trend. According to Dave Jamieson, reporting for The Huffington Post, “The number of workers classified as "part time for economic reasons" -- that is, not by choice -- rose last month by nearly 500,000, to a total of 8.6 million.” This is the “underemployment problem”.
Whether it is sad or not, many people, myself included, have adjusted. Many new architecture hires are “part time for economic reasons.” They come and go, unable to maintain a foothold in the profession. Firms may be too unstable to hire full-time, but this sort of “day laborer” approach to staffing up also produces uncertainty for this new type of “intern.” This has implications for mentoring, licensing, professional development, and the continuity of practice within firms.
The economy which was rent apart by rapacious greed and unregulated banking practices has wrought a new reality on every profession. Architecture is no different. Perhaps, for some, it is acceptable to be offered itinerant work, to expect to fill out your own 1099 forms at the end of the year, and to hope that you don’t get sick because health insurance is just not in the books. Literally.
I, and the other contributor to this series, Sherin Wing, have long argued for better working conditions for architects. More pay, less exploitation, sometimes to vociferous protests and sometimes to resounding praise. The truth is I believe in this profession. I wouldn’t fight so hard to point out its shortcomings if I did not: I would simply leave it. But I think that any profession must be flexible and responsive to shifting economic conditions. And that is what I believe is happening here, with what I am calling the “new normal.” What I hope, however, is that once the economy settles once more into a growth pattern, this can once again become an anomaly.