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    some thoughts about the labor market...

    Gregory Walker
    Sep 6, '12 10:30 AM EST


    recently, we put our first advertised job posting out in four years. there's several reasons for the time lag, not all of them due to the economy or a downturn in our fortunes. on the contrary, we've done relatively well- steady, but well - during that stretch. the biggest issue is we haven't had much turnover in our professional staff. two, to be exact, and both were moving on for personal reasons than anything else.


    so, when we decided to open this position, we naturally included an ad on archinect as part of our strategy. paul and the archinect staff have put together a wonderful primer about how to improve your chances - it's definitely worth the read and i won't pretend to be able to add to it. and i'll say we did get responses. a lot. over 80 in 7 days. for a little ole firm in atlanta.


    what amazed me, though, was the types of responses we received. and, maybe, what it says about the market right now.

    to summarize quickly: we were looking for a project architect/manager (combo) who could run small projects with some independence. a past project history in workplace design (including interiors) was a bonus. if you were also a registered interior designer, that would be a bonus. we deliberately left off a # of years thinking this might come across as being a little too limiting or prejudicial (a mistake in hindsight, although we were aiming to find someone with 4-8 years of experience). in summary, here's a snapshot at what we received:

    about 30% of the applications were from interior designers or interior design graduates. most of these were located in georgia.
    about 40% of the applications came from overseas applicants, with a vast majority of those from the EU. (i knew it was bad, but still....)
    only 3 applications fell into the 4-8 years of experience range.
    about 35% of the applications were from people who had 20+ years of experience.
    about 20% of the applications were from people who had their own firms currently (some of these were, on the surface, related to being laid off recently and were less than a few years old, but a lot more were from people who had their own firms for a longer period of time).
    finally, about 10% of the applications came from people whose last position had been as a principal in another firm (in most cases quite large firms).


    it's the last three groups/stats above that really took my breath away as i just wasn't prepared to receive those kinds of responses. and that group is the one that really got me re-thinking about where we are as an industry (and a little bit about the economy overall):

    for all of the hype and encouragement we hear about starting your own business, i'm more convinced than ever that, quite bluntly, a vast majority of the people simply don't want to. they just want to be able to plug into a system or company or studio or whatever structure already exists. they simply want the security of a steady paycheck. the 'risks' they're willing to take are minimal in certain respects. and they're the ones wholly unprepared for the bomb that went off 4 years ago. (and to be fair, should they have been on constant vigilance?)

    this is a major issue we're failing collectively to address in any meaningful way. and the fact that we're just letting so much of the knowledge base of the profession just wither away will hurt our overall competitiveness in the future. we're already being asked these kinds of questions by our clients: 'when the work comes back, who's going to have the experience to lead them properly?” that's a real issue for them - they see the same exodus, the same shuffling of musical chairs between the large firms. the problem?  the raw job opportunities aren't coming back (at that level) for most of that group - the ones who've had a career that's led to  a partnership that's now lying in waste. they just aren't. there isn't anywhere else to 'just plug in' at the same level* - it's why we (and i'm sure others) are getting their responses to ads like this.

    *(i'll throw in the other observation here – i've talked to way too many people at the “C” level who've been laid off or close to it talk about how they want to jump to the owner's representation side – to become an in-house PM for some corporation. i don't know of any objective studies that have mapped out this kind of response – all i'm going on is anecdotal evidence – but it would be really interesting to know how many people at the higher levels are leaving for the supposedly 'safer' position on the other side of the equation).


    the hope in this situation? there are handfuls of people who ARE making the transition - who never dreamed they'd be able to do this on their own but just are. and realizing it's not the end of the world either. it's work -hard, sometimes thankless - but it is doable. it's incredibly heartening to see the successes.


    still, based on our experiences the past few weeks, i do wonder: just how many people would be thrilled to plug back into a more secure structure if given the chance....


    • design


      Sep 6, 12 2:11 pm  · 

      Very interesting observations. Thanks for sharing.

      Sep 6, 12 2:34 pm  · 

      Gregory, this is really interesting and i understand you're point about a seeming lack of ambition being shown by people with management and leadership experience going after jobs they are seemingly over qualified for.  I wonder though why you assume these people lack drive rather than say, are desperate for work?

      Sep 6, 12 5:12 pm  · 

      "over 80 in 7 days" minus 40% Euros, and these numbers are not bad at all. It was a lot worse few years ago. One position I interviewed for received 120 in a week. For a specwritter position. I doubt the whole city had more than a dozen people that could call themselves that. 

      Sep 6, 12 5:58 pm  · 

      Rusty - where was that job? A job ad for a position in cities such as NYC or LA will get much more response than a job in Atlanta, such as the case with Gregory's job ad.

      Sep 6, 12 6:22 pm  · 

      80 in 7 days alone wasn't the surprise - but, yes, getting so many from europe was. and all over europe, not just spain or great britain. 


      lletdownl - i'm not criticizing a lack of ambition on their parts to find work, i'm simply saying most of those people (some of whom were principals in larger firms) don't seem inclined to startup a new firm. they want to find another job as a principal in a firm. big difference. and i'd argue they're all successful enough that they've certainly tried that route (and continue to do so). and look, i don't blame them - starting a firm is very, very hard. there's nothing easy about it. you really have to want to do it. and, as said, most people simply don't. they want to join up after someone's started it. and that's ok. 

      Sep 6, 12 8:31 pm  · 

      i fall into the category you're identifying, gregory. after ten years in a 10p firm i went back to grad school and then spent two years teaching and operating my own office. i hated having my own office! 

      after realizing it, i came to my current office and specifically asked if i could be 'just an architect' - more back of house, working on making buildings, than management. i took the job under that assumption. 

      seven years later i'm, of course, in management again: a partner in a firm of 10p. and i'm happy in the role, *as i've grown into it in these particular circumstances*. but i still know that it could have worked out differently - or rather NOT worked out - based on the skills and predilections i have. 

      Sep 7, 12 12:53 pm  · 

      Very interesting.  My question to you is, did you consider those 20+ year applicants?  And if not, why not?  

      Sep 7, 12 6:38 pm  · 

      manta - we didn't. at least not for the position we were advertising. reasons are complex, but quite honestly, it has more to do with alignment of expectations. the types of work we do - public, institutional projects - would probably fit, but we do a fair number of smaller (ie > 1M construction) projects. someone with 4-8 years can handle them just fine. and the anticipated offer we could make would be aligned with how much we earn on those. short way of saying: a 20+ year may be willing to 'step down' in terms of pay and responsibility but mentally, in that situation, i'm not quite there yet. i'd feel like i was taking advantage of someone.

      Sep 8, 12 8:45 am  · 

      it has more to do with alignment of expectations.

      Ah, that's exactly what I was wondering.  How do you know what the expectations of those 20+ year veterans would have been, without talking to them?  I mean that honestly.  It could have easily been that they literally can't find anything else, and would quite willingly take on the work you have to offer - even work that could be done by a 4-8 year person might be perfectly satisfactory to a 20+ year veteran.  Size of project isn't everything - a project is a project is a project.

      I'm just being devil's advocate.  Without you specifying that you wanted someone with 4-8 years, it's hard to know what their expectations are, eh?  I guess I just feel bad for someone who would be quite happy with the work you might have given them... and you might have gotten a more valuable employee for the money, to boot.

      Or does it not work that way?  Please educate me - I'm only about at year 10 or so :-)

      Sep 8, 12 7:05 pm  · 

      So what an unemployed architect with 20 years of experience should do to pay rent, support a family, simply live? If you are laid off at a later age and can't find a job for over a year or two, are you practically left to die? 35% is an alarming number for soon to be skid row residents. Brutal. We know if you didn't work over a period of time nobody will hire you regardless of what you can do.

      Sep 8, 12 8:30 pm  · 

      ohran - that's not really fair. yes, everyone has that issue. and believe me, if i could land more work, i'd be glad to hire plenty of people who aren't currently working no matter how much experience they have.

      my only point is that, if you take someone with 20+ on for 50k (for example) - are they just going to be constantly looking for the 'next' thing since this is probably 40-60k less than they were making previously? are they going to be looking for significant raises within a year or two? raises that simply don't match either the income level of the office, etc.? be fair here -it's not outright discrimination, but there's a reason people advertise for a 2-4 year or a 15+ year position. it's a different need for each. and that absolutely has everything to do with a variety of perfectly reasonable expectations. 

      do we also not believe someone who's been out 20+ years has a better chance of working their personal networks to help rustle up their own work on the side?

      Sep 10, 12 7:09 am  · 

      Would it not be more fair to meet with those folks and explain your concerns and see what they say?  Then you can say "we can't offer any significant future raises, this amount is how much it will be, with minor raises" and if they don't agree to that, they don't have to take it.  I think you're in a very tough position, and obviously you don't have unlimited time, but I would imagine that even a quick email clarifying the position will weed 90% of those experienced veterans out right off, and the few remaining might be just as worthy of an interview as a young person.  You never know what they might be able to bring to the office... mentorship to younger employees, industry contacts that you don't already have... I don't know, I don't run a business - I just wanted to hear more about this aspect to hiring, from your point of view.  Please don't take this to mean I think I know better - please take it as a true question - I am truly curious.

      Sep 10, 12 10:40 am  · 

      This is a very interesting post and thank you for taking the time to post it.

      A lot has been said about the 35% with 20+ years experience but I was struck by the other figure 20% of people with their own firms currently some may be in name only. 

      Did this group put you off? Were they seen as unavailable or as a flight risk?

      I ask this since I list at the top of my resume a freelance group that I lead. We barely make 2-3 k a year in billings but we do some interesting community based work for non profits such as wheel chair accessible community gardens, work for food pantries and churches, often for a small nominal fee. We use this to keep our skills sharp mostly.  The group has 3-6 members depending on the school schedule. What struck me is that in my most recent interview over the phone (this was probably a screening interview) they kept coming back to it 4 times, I think they either did not believe me that we had projects, that I just put it there, or they thought I was one of those overqualified folks with too many years of experience.

      It does say freelance small community based projects, not sure if this is hurting me in the eyes of a potential employer or maybe it is just an isolated incident and experience should be counted even if it is part time in this case a very small part time over a few years. Does it make me look like I am tethered should I just drop it and have a huge gap?

      Also how big of a gap in employment is too big would you even consider someone with a recession long gap?

      Is it too expensive to retrain someone who has not worked in Revit or Cad everyday for a year or more?

      Is omitting experience to trim back the years to fit the job advertisement a bad idea, is this dishonest or is it valid to edit and decide to only mention what you think is relevant to the position being filled?

      I assume the answers to these questions are based on personal experience if you are the one looking for some folks to invite to interview you may have a bias based on your personal history, but I think a lot of folks would be interested in what the people making the first round of screening decisions think.

      Sep 10, 12 12:32 pm  · 

      manta - nothing taken 'wrongly'. and there's no 'right' answers to any of this - for example, if we bring in someone with 20+, am i discriminating against a 2-4 year intern who's been laid off? i mean, each of us draws the line somewhere.

      for clarification about us in particular: we like continuity. a lot. in fact, the very first line of my post is about the fact that we've had very little turnover. that's important to us and our clients. so, to answer your question: yes, i'm sure there are people with 20+ years who may fit our qualifications well, but i just don't know how many of them would literally 'reset' their career and salary expectations without having an eye out for openings at other firms that might more fully meet their own needs. maybe there's some. but my role isn't to be a way-station for someone like that - my role is to do what's best for our firm. 

      we have, to be transparent, brought in someone who was laid off and in this same position before as a contract worker - we needed their experience and paid them quite well for it. and, if we had to hire someone like that full time, i wouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger. but, to answer your question, i personally don't like the idea of hiring someone who's likely to be constantly looking for the 'better' opportunity. it's not good business for us. 

      i do think orhan's pov is valid to a degree, but i think he's working from an incomplete picture of our specific needs and is arguing a larger point.

      Sep 10, 12 12:33 pm  · 

      Greg, I was not particularly putting you or your company on the spot but asking a question and raising a concern about something applies to my own age group. Over the years I have adopted myself to levels I could ride the economic fluctuations and not having any children basically made it possible to get by without the daily grind of 9-5 jobs. But I assure you it didn't come without some sacrifices. I am a fully capable architect who has his name on several projects that I can proudly say I have done them. However in this job market it is not easy to land a project with your networks and what have you. Maybe 5% of the time they might lead you to a project. That leaves a lot of experienced and unemployed architects out in the cold.

      I have some other professionally related skills I am able to turn them into income and just barely get by at the moment, but in general, the conditions are dismal.

      Manta is reasonable, why can't potential employers ask those people if they would work for considerably lower salaries? I guarantee you most would say "hack yeah."

      This is a compounding problem. You have young people struggling to get jobs, older people out of work and competing for jobs with young people, and schools are pumping out yet more graduates. I guess that is why they have to advocate new ways of doing architectural production to keep their new graduates uniquely skilled even though 99% of the buildings are still done the same way in last 50-100 years.

      I think business of architecture as we know it, is at a point that it may never return to support its work force. I don't see any big building boom on the horizon. Even then, the task of putting together buildings might require a lot less people.

      Sep 10, 12 12:58 pm  · 

      Thanks for the article! It got me thinking in another direction...

      As someone educated both within the US and EU, my question is, what was the general perception of the EU applicants?

      Germany, from my experience, has many job openings at the moment, though there is the language requirement that sets a barrier for foreign applicants. On the other hand, most Germans that I know who are wishing to gain practical experience in the US do so because they want to gain experience abroad, rather than flee a poor market, and the English language doesn't pose much difficulty for most higher educated Europeans.

      Personal experience almost leads me to believe that there is a negative perception, or perhaps a lack of knowledge, on the US side as to how qualified European applicants really are. Would I be right to make this assumption? Do American firms view the hiring Europe-educated graduates/architects as "risky"?

      Sep 10, 12 4:01 pm  · 

      Petr - I'm probably not the best gauge for that question, given the size and relative anonymity of our firm. for me (and very small firms like mine), the real issue would be much less one of 'risk' than it would be logistics. to go through the visa sponsorship issues, given the position we're advertising for, would be a tough sell. there are simply too many other equally qualified people already here. 

      so, not a negative in any regard other than the logistics of it (at least for me).

      Sep 10, 12 9:03 pm  · 

      Thanks for taking me seriously, Gregory; I appreciate your perspective.  It still seems like a shame, but I do appreciate where you're coming from.  I wish there was a better solution to the problem, for both parties.

      And to Peter Normand - great questions.

      Sep 10, 12 11:02 pm  · 

      excellent post gregory, very interesting to read a bit about how employers view applicants.

      Sep 11, 12 1:46 pm  · 

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Central to the blog is a long running interest in how we construct practices that enable and promote the kind of work we are all most interested in. From how firms are run, structured, and constructed, the main focus will be on exploring, expanding and demystifying how firms operate. I’ll be interviewing different practices – from startups to nationally recognized firms, bringing to print at least one a month. Our focus will be connecting Archinect readers with the business of practice.

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