With layoffs sweeping the profession, architects of all stripes should prepare for the worst.

Stephanie Houston’s saga is all too common these days.

Armed with a master’s degree in architecture and six years of professional experience, Houston currently is hunting for work in San Francisco after getting laid off from a U.K.-based firm in October. She is taking all of the necessary steps: finessing her resume and portfolio, scouring the Web for job openings, networking at full-throttle. She even printed her own business cards. Ever determined, Houston has contacted 30 firms in the Bay Area; so far, only one has invited her in for an exploratory interview, in case it might be hiring in the future. “I’m trying to make the most of it,” she says, “but it’s frustrating at times.”

Charlton Hutton (left) and Angelina Pinto (right)
Photo ''Danielle Austen
Charlton Hutton (left) and Angelina Pinto (right) are two unemployed architects who are hunting for jobs. Read about them, and check out their resumes, in our special online feature, Recession Stories.

Indeed, times are bleak. The national unemployment rate is steadily climbing; in January, it hit 7.6 percent, with the architecture and engineering industry sector shedding some 9,600 jobs. As credit remains frozen, and work dries up in the U.S. and abroad, firms large and small are cutting staff.

Nobody is immune from getting laid off in this depressed economy, experts say. For those who have lost their job—or fear losing it—the near future does not look promising. There are strategies, however, that architects can employ to ensure their longevity in the profession. 

The pink slip

Susan Heathfield, a Michigan-based human resources consultant, says she always tells people to “live your life as if it’s the last day you are going to be employed.” Even employees who feel secure should take pro-active measures—such as updating resumes, lining up references, and joining social networking sites like LinkedIn—to equip themselves for a job search. Architects should also collect all material they need from the office, from e-mail addresses to sketch books, given that pink-slipped employees are not always given ample time to clean out their desks and computers.

Those who do get laid off should try negotiating their severance packages, whether that means asking for extended health insurance coverage or more severance pay. In the professional services industry, Heathfield says, the average severance pay is roughly two weeks compensation for every year worked for the company.

Beyond pay and benefits, ask for the firm’s “cooperation in finding a new position,” says Michael Strogoff, AIA, a California-based management consultant and chair of the AIA’s Practice Management Knowledge Community advisory group.Employees might request a letter of recommendation, referrals, or use of a workspace. In addition, they should ask for an exit interview and use it as a chance to solicit constructive feedback on their performance. And while some might not feel comfortable lobbing this query, laid-off employees should ask if there is an opportunity to continue working for the firm in some capacity, as a part-time employee or consultant. “I think it’s entirely appropriate to have a conversation and leave on good terms, smarter terms,” Strogoff says. “The more enlightened firms are making sure they have those conversations with those they need to lay off.” 

What next?

Jobless architects should remember that “first and foremost, it’s the market, not you,” says Billy Clark, directory of Jack Kelly & Partners, a recruitment agency for the design industry. While architects may need to take a few days—or weeks or months—to muster up the energy and confidence needed for the job hunt, Clark says they should assemble their portfolio and resume immediately. The longer one waits, the more difficult the task becomes. “Do it the minute you get laid off,” he emphasizes.

When the job market is fierce, a standout resume is vital. Clark says many of the resumes he sees aren’t professional enough, noting that they should list projects and clearly describe the architect’s role in those projects. Dana Byrne, the senior human resources manager at RMJM, offers these additional resume tips: target them to the receiver, use graphics sparingly, and proofread fastidiously. Also, ensure all correspondence is professional—and drop names. “We’re in a no-holds barred situation here,” she says. “You need to separate yourself from the pack.” For candidates who are offered an exploratory interview, go for it, she says. “You still want to try and get face time, so when the time comes, you’re on their mind.”

Job hunters should also reach out to everyone they know—friends, former coworkers, old classmates, consultants, contractors. That’s what Michael Murno, AIA, who has largely worked on institutional projects during his 40-year career, has been doing since he was laid off in December from a large firm in New York. In addition to calling hospitals and school associations to see if they need a consultant, he’s reaching out to his contacts at Pratt Institute, where he previously taught construction courses.

Munro has slogged through prior economic downturns—he hung wallpaper in the 1970s, when construction in the U.S. was at a standstill—but he feels this recession might be worse because the financial system is crumbling. “I never thought I would ever, ever go through this again,” he says. “These days are terrible.”