If architecture is to stay fresh and progressive, it needs a continual infusion of new professionals. Although it’s difficult to conceive of hiring during this era of layoffs, we can’t afford to lose the talent that the next generation has to offer.
A former student of mine has been looking for work in Chicago for 16 weeks. He is a spectacular young guy, having graduated in the top 5 percent of his class at a top-five school of architecture. He has an extraordinary portfolio, works like a Trojan, and is about the nicest person you could ever meet. He is disciplined, well-organized, articulate, and very presentable. He would be among the best and brightest of the next generation of young architects. But he cannot find a job.
This guy has worked through every network he could find and has been able to get in to talk to numerous firms. Their response has been consistent: His portfolio is one of the best they have ever seen, and if they had work for him they would hire him in a minute. They have often been kind enough to make phone calls on his behalf to connect him with other firms. One of his interviewers even asked him to sit on a jury in the design studio he was teaching at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Being the entrepreneurial fellow that he is, my bright young former student offered to work for free at one firm for a time in exchange for the use of an empty workstation. He did whatever they needed in the morning and then worked on a competition he was entering on his own in the afternoon. Now he is finished with the competition boards and has added them to his portfolio. He recently e-mailed me to see if I might suggest any related fields he could look into where he might work in the short-term, hoping things will pick up in architecture later.
Another Lost Generation?
Like my former student, I, too, graduated in the midst of a serious recession. Many of my outstanding classmates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology never became architects because they could not find a job after graduating. They took their architectural education and used it to become energy consultants, businesspeople, entrepreneurs, civil servants, teachers, or stay-at-home parents. Some of them went back to school to get another kind of education and became engineers or doctors. All of these people seem to have had good careers, but they were lost to the architecture profession.
I fear we are about to lose another generation of excellent, well-trained, enthusiastic young people who could make a great contribution to our field but may well veer away for lack of initial opportunity. The time will come when we will need them. Remember three and four years ago when talent was scarce, headhunters were thriving, and graduating students were getting signing bonuses? Right now, it’s hard to imagine that could ever happen again. But it will.
Does it make sense in the long-term to offer golden opportunities to even the lowest performing students from the class of 2005, having given them that essential first toehold in the profession, and then slam the door in the face of the best of the class of 2009? Is there any way to dampen the negative impact of these roller-coaster business cycles on our ability to attract and maintain the best work force possible in architecture?
Large law firms have always been serious about their recruitment of new talent right out of law school. Good times or bad, they have interviewed every year, wined and dined their summer interns, and hired a new crop of recent graduates like clockwork. Though this may be changing somewhat, the long-term practice of regular recruitment has kept the legal profession from having the kind of talent gaps we have had in architecture.
In a period when good firms are fighting like crazy just to keep their own best people, it may seem hare-brained to be talking about bringing on new talent. Any sensitive employer who takes pride in his or her employees and the kind of work they are capable of producing has to feel a loyalty and protectiveness toward the existing work force. There are resumés they have built with the firm and personal connections and work relationships they have established that are hard to sever. It is difficult to imagine the promise of a recent graduate competing with the attachment, respect, and affection that one often feels toward an established co-worker.
So how do we address this perplexing dilemma? I do not have any profound answers, but I have four notions that we might want to keep in mind for now and the next few years.
1. Maybe this is the time to put people first and peripherals farther down the list. Long-term laborsaving devices may not be an appropriate priority right now. Over the past two decades, architecture has gone from a low-capital profession to one in which a significantly higher percentage of expenses goes to equipment, materials, and software. Though I love what these gizmos can do, I am appalled by their expense — not only in first costs but also in annual fees, supplies, and service personnel to operate and maintain them.
Maybe “hackwork” could come back in style — at least a bit. Physical models are still astounding and beautiful communication tools. Perhaps we should be digging the matt knives out of the bottom of the drawer and putting them to use again. Is it really the best investment right now to buy a suave new laser cutter or gorgeous 3-D printer? (I will confess to having coveting both over the past few years.) Wouldn’t it be better to hire a recent graduate to produce well-crafted, soul-satisfying models that would also give someone a job?
Do I sound like a troglodyte? This need not be a long-term redirection, but it might be wise to look top-to-bottom in our operations to see what tasks might be done by an intern architect that are currently done (at great expense) by systems and software. Is there a small crack here for a bright young architect-to-be to get a foot in the door?
2. Is it possible that some of the non-architectural jobs in our offices might be done by cross-trained architects? Some recent architecture graduates are whiz-bang geniuses of sorts when it comes to information technology. They have been working in the computer labs at their universities trouble-shooting hardware and software issues. Others may have been working part-time to put themselves through college as a receptionist or an administrative assistant. Some have undergraduate degrees in accounting. Many have great graphic and organizational skills that could, with a little training, be parlayed into a mastery of basic marketing.
Several years ago, architecture graduates might have been too proud to take an IT, accounting, or marketing position after working so hard to get a professional degree in architecture. Not now. Most would be delighted to help out any way they could in an architectural context. They would also give firms the added benefit of having additional architectural skills that might be handy from time to time.
3. We should be nurturing and developing the interns we do have in our offices. They will have an extra burden of leadership for their generation in the future. We should be helping to imbed them deeply into our field and into organizations that help promote architecture in the broader community.
In my own firm, Page Southerland Page, we have sponsored some very beneficial programs aimed at younger employees that have paid off handsomely in making interns feel like they have their own niche and their own personal work. Our Dallas office does a great job of getting young architects involved in community projects, especially ones that involve design skills. A highly visible project for the Dallas Arboretum was designed and built by interns and continues to be a great source of investment and pride for them.
In our Austin office we have a spectacular 30-something guy who has made it his quest to get younger architects-to-be involved in local competitions for everything from dog houses to be auctioned off for the local animal shelter to exhibit structures for a local arts fair to the design of a park in a low-income neighborhood. He is arranging volunteer opportunities for American Institute of Architects activities, including being docents for homes tours and serving on committees, even as associate members.
4. When work picks up and we start hiring again, we should keep the very youngest in our field firmly in mind. We should seek them out, affirming their talents and value to the field loudly and openly. We should not make five years of relevant experience a criterion for application when the new jobs come around.
In Praise of the Next Gen
I make this plea because I have so much respect and hope for this emerging generation of architects-to-be. They are not like their predecessors. They are less materialistic and more passionate about their field than any students I have worked with in more than 30 years of teaching. These young people really want to make a contribution. They have seen their moms and dads work their tails off for a bigger house and more luxurious car and have decided that the rat race is not for them.
They know more about sustainability and altered behavior toward the environment than most of the rest of us because they grew up with ecological responsibility as a top-of-mind issue. Many of them chose to study architecture because they saw it as a vehicle for making a better, more environmentally responsive world. This is a cause for them that goes well beyond racking up LEED points.
There is much we can learn from this younger generation, and our profession has a lot to gain from the unique attributes they can contribute. Having grown up in a mind-bogglingly visual world full of video games and animatronics, they possess a visual acuity that never ceases to amaze me. It is difficult to give traditional slide identification exams in architectural history classes these days because this generation’s visual memory is so much better than previous students’. They get too many of the answers right.
We can poke fun at their social networking habits, but I am blown away by the way they manage to keep in touch with colleagues — including me — far better than their predecessors. The most recent couple of classes of graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin have used Facebook to the max. They are keeping up with each other even though they have relocated all over the world. Their posts are not just idle chatter but often reports of cool new buildings they have visited or images of projects they are working on.
Billy Antozzi, who graduated last spring, recently wrote a daily blog documenting travels to India, China, and Thailand (http://antozzistravels.blogspot.com), where he visited a wide range of architectural wonders as well as doing volunteer work to rebuild a village in the foothills of the Himalayas. Those of us who followed the blog not only stayed connected with him, but we also learned a lot about life and building on the other side of the world.
Ryan Kelly, who graduated a year ago, has written mammoth tomes on his experiences in the Peace Corps in a remote mountain village in Honduras, keeping all of his friends informed through detailed e-mails. It is moving to read his comments on the ecology of native life where he lives in a rudimentary hut and bathes each morning in the river. He offers amazing accounts of the street life of Tegucigalpa, particularly in the midst of the recent political turmoil.
In architecture, we need the broadening dimensions this generation has to offer. We need their commitment to sustainability, their keen visual acuity, their penchant for collegiality and connectivity, and their global perspective. These are the directions the world is moving, and our profession will suffer if we do not have full representation from the children of this era.
We need this new DNA in our field just like we have needed the new DNA of every previous generation to keep our profession fresh and progressive. It is tough to do this in difficult economic times, but it something each of us needs to think about and try to address, even in very small ways.
RELATED VIDEO: Larry Speck’s Architecture And Society class is one of the most popular courses at the University of Texas and has been a key motivator helping people understand the importance of architecture in our everyday lives – not to mention responsible for convincing numerous students to pursue careers in architecture.
Larry Speck is one of five principals with Page Southerland Page and works as a designer in several of their offices. He is also a professor in the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. He received all three of his degrees from MIT and has written two books, chapters for a dozen books, and more than 50 articles in architectural publications.