First to suffer, last to recover

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February 1, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
// As their ranks of unemployed continue to grow, Downtown architects scramble to redefine their profession //

Alan D’Souza is one of the lucky ones.

The day he received notice of his layoff from a St. Paul architecture firm back in November 2008, he already had a tentative job offer in hand. It wasn’t a design gig, exactly.  But it was pretty close.  The Weidt Group, a Minnetonka-based sustainable design consulting company with whom D’Souza had worked closely at his old firm, wanted to bring him on staff. D’Souza had been shifting his focus closer to sustainable design anyway, and he seemed a natural candidate for the Weidt Group, a leader in the field. The job appeared to be a sure thing.

It took six months for the offer to materialize.

 “They were interested, but they weren’t hiring immediately,” D’Souza remembers.  “They could see that the profession across the board had been hit, and since they work mostly with architects, they were cautious about bringing on new people.”

Still, a six-month stall in employment seems mild in a crisis that has many laid-off architects and designers wondering if they’ll ever return to work.

According to the latest data available from the Department of Labor, employment at American architecture firms, which peaked last July at 224,500, had dropped to 184,600 by November. And many among those counted as “employed” have seen their hours reduced to part-time, their status changed to independent contractor or their salaries replaced by smaller hourly wages. Such measures make it difficult to pin down a precise unemployment percentage, but here in Minnesota, most industry watchers estimate joblessness to be between 40 and 60 percent.

So unsettling is the unemployment situation that architecture, some say, has joined print media and the auto industry as a sector that must make dramatic changes if it is to survive.

With the bulk of Minnesota architects concentrated in Downtown firms — the state chapter of the American Institute of Architects estimates that  two-thirds of its members work in Minneapolis — the crisis has had a very visible impact on the core of the city.

“The demand right now is very low,” said Jason Mehmen, an account manager at Aerotek, a local recruiting agency that staffs architects and engineers. “There is just so much uncertainty on the part of the firms. They’re scared to death to hire anyone, even if they do need people.”

Every job vacancy triggers a flood of applications, Mehmen said.  And sifting through hundreds of potentially irrelevant resumes makes hiring even less appealing to employers already jittery about taking on new talent.

 “I’ve already had architecture firms say, ‘We’re not even going to post our jobs. We’re not even going to deal with it.’”

Staffing agencies like his have grown even more important than ever, Mehmen says, in saving firms the hassle of filtering applicants. But they can also absorb a lot of the risk involved when a firm looks to hire on a part-time or contract basis. “If we employ someone, we provide their benefits, and we pay their unemployment insurance,” Mehmen said. “We offer candidates that security, but we also offer the firm the flexibility not to bring them directly onto payroll.”

The problem, most experts agree, is the lending environment, which remains painfully frozen 18 months after the real estate market initially imploded. Banks aren’t taking any risks, developers are starved for financing, and with new construction stalled indefinitely, it’s impossible for architecture firms to look ahead to new projects. So tied to new construction is the architecture profession that it has tended to boom and bust along with the real estate market.

“My wife’s an architect,” Mehmen said. “She’s been laid off three times in her career.”

Such roller coaster employment trends have some questioning the very nature of the profession.

“Any profession that’s facing 50 to 60 percent unemployment, there’s probably some underlying issues that need to be addressed,” said Jess Roberts, a designer currently on furlough from LHB Architects, a firm located in the Warehouse District.

In Roberts’ view, there has been a failure to articulate the scope of the profession’s usefulness.

“Our profession needs to find an alternative to just being people who draw buildings,” he said. “We’ve done a horrible job of marketing what we do, and now people don’t see the value of what we can provide.”

Architecture — and design in general — he argues, is about problem-solving. Roberts sees tremendous opportunity in pushing “a more holistic view of design,” in solving a broader pool of problems that might expand the client base beyond building developers.

“It’s not necessarily just designing things that are physical. It’s designing programs, solutions that can be social or environmental.” He points to a community program he developed in the Como Neighborhood that focused on reducing energy consumption as an example. As architects learn to more broadly apply their trade, Roberts says, new economic opportunities will emerge.

“You don’t go to school for seven years to learn how to draw with a computer program.”

In the short term, though, getting people back to work is top priority.

“Although the recession is supposedly over, it’s not over for architects,” said Beverly Hauschild-Baron, executive vice president of American Institute of Architects Minnesota, a member organization for architects. “When it is over for the profession, we believe that things will have changed fairly substantially. How de we retool…to bring people into alignment with where we see the industry changing?”

New BIM (building information modeling) technologies have begun to replace traditional drafting with three-dimensional modeling. And new organizational systems, enabled by wiki-style software, have redefined the architect’s roll in the design project, allowing building owners and contractors a larger impact on a building’s evolution.

“These are tools and systems that people are exploring and proceeding cautiously with,” said Hauschild-Baron. For out-of-work architects less-versed in these new standards, though, getting up to speed presents a major obstacle, as software and training can be prohibitively expensive.

In response to such challenges, AIA Minnesota has mounted an unprecedented strategic campaign to get architects back to work. In the winter of 2009, the organization launched its Members in Transition Group, a monthly gathering aimed at providing resources for the unemployed. Continuing education is its prime concern, and the group hosts free software training sessions, sponsored by product vendors and smaller firms. The Members in Transition arranged a deal with BWBR architects, a St. Paul firm, who over a two month period allowed unemployed AIA Minnesota members to come in and train on the firm’s computers.

Aside from software training, the group has brought in the chief AIA economist from Washington, D.C., for small group financial consultations, as well as invited high-level industry people from Minnesota’s Council of Firms to meet face-to-face with job-seekers. Other resources include interview preparation workshops and an online “skills matrix,” which allows employers a more efficient way to find talent for contract work and short-term projects.

A “Recovery Task Force” has been formed at the state level as a sort of think tank to address the larger issues facing the industry. AIA Minnesota President Rich Varda, who is also Target’s Chief of Design, has arranged for a graduate class at the Carlson School of Management to research the changing nature of the profession.

Still, a lack of funding continues to be the major challenge. As a member of the Building Jobs Coalition — a broad-based group made up of all segments of the development sector — AIA Minnesota has helped author a bill for the upcoming legislative session designed to free up funding for spring and summer building projects.

But with the outcome of these measures as uncertain as the employment picture, the only thing that local architects are certain of is the need to evolve.

“It’s about redefining the role of the architect a little more, building skill sets internally and looking to make other fields aware of the value design professionals can offer,” said AIA Minnesota Communications Director Jennifer Gilhoi.

Reach Gregory J. Scott at