In the current troubled economy, a powerful one-two punch has stung architects searching for work. First, there are few openings at firms, many of which have laid off workers in droves in recent months while also imposing hiring freezes. Plus, competition for those few spots is fierce, as tens of thousands of out-of-work architects do battle with thousands of recent graduates.
Illustration © A. Richard Allen

But among those who aren’t enrolling in graduate school to ride out the storm, unemployed architects are hardly acting cowed. If anything, they’re redoubling their efforts to find work — including, of course, prepping for interviews, which traditionally have been any applicant’s best opportunities to sparkle in the course of a job search.

Expand your skill set

Realizing that interview opportunities are few and far between, though, many applicants may now be forced to take a more muscular approach to the process. In a more encompassing style, they’re promoting themselves well before actually sitting down in the interview chair, according to firms, recruiters, and business-school professors, as well as long after that face-to-face moment has passed.

To secure the coveted interview in the first place, many for-hire architects are rushing to become LEED-accredited professionals, a designation that indicates proficiency with the sustainable-building standards issued by the U.S. Green Building Council. Once the province of a select group of cutting-edge designers, LEED standards have been embraced by the general public over the past few years, so that clients who want their buildings to be certified often come to seek architecture firms who can do the work. Having employees who can satisfy their demands for green buildings and shepherd the projects through the step-intensive LEED process has become important for architects, firm owners say.

Older architects, meanwhile, are increasingly being told they should familiarize themselves with newer design software that wasn’t in use when they attended architecture school, such as AutoDesk Revit, a building information modeling enabler. “These skills make people at all levels so much more marketable,” says Kerry Harding, an architect and recruiter with the Talent Bank in Bethesda, Maryland.

But getting in the door can also require more knocks on it, sometimes quite literally. For instance, at HOK, the global firm, office tours, which are essentially informal networking sessions, occasionally produce interview opportunities — a benefit that the firm freely promotes, says Nikki Duffner, HOK’s chief corporate recruiter.

In fact, even though HOK has drastically scaled back hiring in recent months, including reducing campus recruiting by 15 percent, it has still encouraged interested applicants to drop by. And they’ve come: HOK’s had a 20 percent increase in tour attendance in a year, says Duffner, adding, “Everyone should have their own personal marketing campaign when it comes to finding a job in this marketplace.”

Once that foot is in the door, be careful about misrepresentation, says Rich Weinman, a recruiter with Kimmel and Associates in Asheville, North Carolina. In the boom times, a résumé that was thick with references to brand-name clients but had little in the way of relevant experience might have been enough to seal the deal. Now, though, credentials that highlight, say, luxury condos for a position that involves hospital design will probably be useless. “I tell my candidates, ‘There’s no winging it. Unless you’ve done this, don’t even try,’” says Weinman, adding that relevant references are also more important.

Know your portfolio

When candidates finally get to the hot seat they should know their portfolios — the square footage of selected projects for example — and supply three references, says Larry Ball, a principal at Johnson Fain, a midsize Los Angeles firm. “But they should also be presentable and be able to communicate well,” says Ball, who, despite his firm’s current hiring freeze, will still meet with candidates, since, he notes, “We are always interested in good people.” In fact, Ball has steered job seekers to other firms.

Even when there are openings, some applicants may need to manage expectations in this economy, as the deck seems stacked against them from the start. Among this group are foreign-born workers who require H-1B visas, according to architects and recruiters; even in upturns, firms often shy away from sponsoring these visas, with their high costs and involved paperwork.

Younger applicants may also be vulnerable, as they become crowded out of the marketplace by older job seekers who are more skilled but also willing to work far below their pay grade just to score a job. Indeed, faced with a choice, a firm might decide that a senior-level architect with a decade of experience who will settle for a $70,000 paycheck, rather than the $100,000 he might have earned a few years earlier, is a better deal than a wet-behind-the-ears rival with the same salary ambitions. “It’s toughest for people in the zero-to-two-year experience range, and they need that experience to qualify for the NCARB exams, so it just prolongs their marketability,” Harding says.

Marketability can also take a hit if architects settle for a job in an unrelated field, like banking, sales, or food service. Rather than flee the profession, architects should consider working in the not-for-profit sector, if they can afford the low pay. That’s especially important if they want to be hired by a firm where not-for-profit work makes up a chunk of its commissions, says Morgan Hare, a partner at Manhattan’s Leroy Street Studio (the 20-employee firm includes a not-for-profit arm called Hester Street Collaborative that designs public schools and city parks).

While applicants may bemoan the current job search after a string of dead-end leads, firms may have found some silver linings; for example, they are suddenly able to have their pick of résumés from a welter of top candidates without having to lift many fingers. Though firms are being careful not to gloat about the emergence of a veritable buyer’s market for labor so as not to seem insensitive to the plights of the unemployed, the advantages seem fairly apparent. “I have five top-notch people for one position versus maybe one a few years ago,” Duffner says.

Facing a deluge of talent, Weinman advocates that firms use more recruiters, not fewer, to help sort through the tall piles of similarly qualified candidates. Yes, it can be pricey to use outside recruiters — their fees can be 30 percent of the base salary of whoever is hired — but the cost could seem negligible at large firms. “This can be like a parking ticket when all is said and done,” he says. But Ball, who handles 95 percent of his firm’s interviewing responsibilities, says, “We’ve never had much luck with recruiters, and they are fairly expensive.”

If the search process drags on, and interviews aren’t forthcoming, job seekers may not want to entirely abandon their relationships with the firms that rejected them, since the economy’s fortunes will eventually turn. HOK, for one, recommends regularly checking the Weblog the firm launched this year; it announces news about college-campus visits, which can present opportunities for applicants of all types to hobnob with firm employees.

If rejected applicants should grin and bear it, human resources might take pains to be civil, too. Compassionately worded rejection letters coupled with personalized explanations of why a match couldn’t be made could go a long way to promoting strong working relationships down the line, says Steven Blader, an associate professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, who adds that “many you don’t hire today might end up with a company you want to do business with. If people see that your hiring process is fair, they will walk away with a positive image of the firm.”

When times get tough, firms may jettison fair treatment in their interviewing practices, “because they are under a lot of stress and worried about the company’s survival,” Blader says. “But those who are getting rejected care more about fairness than ever.”

Freelance writer C.J. Hughes is a frequent RECORD contributor.

Read more about finding work in a bad economy in our Architects’ Survival Guide.