The COVID-19 crisis is disrupting lives globally, but it is also making it a particularly stressful time to be an architecture student or prospective graduate. Is it possible to do an internship remotely? What will the job market look like, not only for the class of 2020, but for anyone hoping to get hired over the next 12 to 18 months? While we’re already seeing the effects of an economic downturn in the architecture, engineering and construction industries, now is the time to start planning for how to be ready when things pick back up again.
While most students set to graduate this year probably haven’t experienced a recession in their working lives, architecture firms were particularly hard hit during the Great Recession of 2008-2009. A recession is a business cycle contraction that is declared when the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is in decline for two or more quarters – six months or more. It is signaled by an increase in unemployment, a drop in the stock market, and a dip in the housing market.
“We estimate close to 32 percent of all architectural positions in the country disappeared temporarily during that recession,” said Kermit Baker, Hon. AIA, chief economist at the American Institute of Architects, at a student webinar hosted by Yale School of Architecture’s Career Services. While it took architecture firms several years to get back to the status quo, the last United States recession was followed by the longest period of economic expansion in United States history.
So, what do you need to know to be prepared heading into this period of uncertainty?
According to Baker, two-thirds of firms have announced that they have either already enacted or are seriously considering hiring freezes, and some have already started layoffs, furloughs, and cutting back staff hours. “That’s likely to continue through the second quarter of the year,” Baker says.
During this time, as during the Great Recession, thinking outside the box is critical. While opportunities at architecture firms may be more limited, there are still chances to build up alternate skills or gain experience outside of a “traditional” architecture career path. For those who have the option, volunteering at a nonprofit or government agency may allow them to develop additional skills in areas like business and public policy.
“In looking for work, trying to keep it as close to your design talents as you can,” says Phillip Bernstein, FAIA, associate dean and senior lecturer at the Yale School of Architecture, who encourages students and emerging professionals to “try to stay on the grid somewhere” – even if they’re under pressure to earn income or keep a work visa.
There also may be untapped opportunities in adjacent parts of the construction industry. In the past, construction firms looked to architects, particularly young ones who were digital natives, to run programs like BIM. For those who may be interested in AEC technology, Baker points out that companies with a particular focus on research and development that are funded by venture capital are somewhat insulated by the economic situation because they’re “pre-revenue and looking for talent.” These sectors include robotics, computational design, machine learning, and automated construction. If you’re interested in other fields such as real estate development and urban planning and have the capacity, a recession is also a great time to pursue advanced degrees.
Shifts in practice methodologies may also be beneficial to those just starting their careers. “Remote working is not going to be thought of as anathema, as it has in the past,” Bernstein says. “Firms that do hire are not necessarily going to be hiring people that are physically located in their areas.” And while there is already some proof of the emergence of the “gig economy” in design, as in many other industries, Baker and Bernstein think that consulting and one-off design tasks that individuals can charge money for are going to see an uptick, as well.
In a more socially-distanced future, the nature of construction is likely also going to change. Construction that uses digital means or is automated may create a whole new set of opportunities on the job site. While there may not be a lot of new commercial construction for office space or even retail, “there’s going to be a lot of thinking about how to repurpose that stuff,” Bernstein says. “That requires design skills and folks that are able to rethink spatial implications.”
Whatever your strategy may be, Baker says, it’s important that you don’t isolate yourself – network as much as possible and consider joining a professional organization like AIA, which offers free membership to recent graduates. Bernstein says that while the current prospects may look somewhat grim, it’s important not to lose hope. AIA has 205 local chapters that allow its members to connect, network and share resources.
“It’s not going to be fun out there,” he says. “The job market’s going to be extremely tight, and you’re going to have to think very carefully about how to competitively differentiate yourself from the competition out there, which is going to be fierce.” But it’s important to find a strategy that works for you, so that you’re able to “rejoin the big river of the profession once it starts flowing again,” Bernstein says.
Even though the economy may be uncertain and traditional job prospects fewer and farther between, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth targeting the type of firm you might want to work for—and demonstrating your wide array of practical digital skills and ability to be a flexible learner in the process.
“Since everyone is working remotely, you’re on equal footing with everyone in the firm in terms of being able to connect with someone,” Baker says. And while architecture has traditionally been a face-to-face profession, it probably won’t remain that way indefinitely—the current crisis is only serving to hasten along an inevitability.
“Practice is going to look a lot different when we come out the other end of the tunnel than it does now,” Baker says. Now is the time to figure out how you’re going to spend the next year – and while the start of your career may not look the way you thought it would when you entered architecture school, architecture is still a profession ripe with opportunity.