A lost generation? The recession hits architects particularly hard, and recovery could take years.


    Architect Trey Trahan is accustomed to seeing colleagues most everywhere he goes.

    These days, however, he’s running into them in atypical places. In the past few weeks, he’s discovered one who’s selling cars and another who’s waiting tables.

    Architecture was hit hard by the recession—harder, it appears, than many other industries. At the end of 2009, MSNBC declared it the profession in America with the highest employment loss. And the recovery could take years.

    A recent study by the American Institute of Architects shows just how hard: Of the 10,500 architects surveyed nationwide, 27% had been laid off, compared to just 10% the previous year. Nearly half of them had yet to find another job.

    Through 2018, the Louisiana Workforce Commission projects just 0.6% average annual employment growth for architects in the state. Earlier this month, there were just two openings listed on the LWC website, both for architecture interns in Baton Rouge.

    “I travel a lot in the work we do, and this is a recurring theme everywhere I go,” Trahan says. “It’s a real concern.”

    Why it matters

    Architecture is inextricably linked to construction. And the construction industry isn’t what it was just five years ago, which means the demand for design is down.

    With financing difficult to secure, the housing market in the tank and consumer spending down, residential and commercial projects are fewer and farther between. Federal, state and municipal budgets are experiencing the accompanying squeeze in tax revenue, so public projects aren’t plentiful, either.

    The concern is that the more protracted the economy recovery, the more likely it is that the field of architecture will experience a lost generation. Younger employees often are the first ones let go in a layoff. Strapped with education debts, they typically find work where they can: in the construction or real estate industries, as graphic artists, or sometimes as car salesmen or waiters. The longer they’re gone, the less likely they are to return.

    “The economic crisis has affected this profession worse than perhaps any other,” says Andrew Goldberg, senior director of federal relations for the American Institute of Architects. “The concern is that if young professionals can’t find work in this field, they will eventually follow other pursuits, and we’ll miss out on a whole generation of young architects in the profession.”

    It’s not so far-fetched. The industry went through a similar crisis in the early 1990s. Goldberg and other architects just out of school couldn’t find work in the field. Ten years later, there was a shortage of project managers—people who had enough experience to step up to the next level.

    Steve Maher, owner of Ritter Maher Architects and president of the Louisiana chapter of the American Institute of Architects, says the law of supply and demand kicked in.

    “There wasn’t anyone to manage projects,” he says. “You can’t exactly hire someone right out of school to do that. There was a kind of infighting in the profession; all these firms were stealing from each other because they needed project managers.”

    The effects linger even today. Goldberg says many firms across the nation now worry about succession.

    “There’s a huge gap right now between older and younger architects,” he says. “That middle group—the one that would take over the leadership of firms—just isn’t there. There aren’t as many of them around.”

    Playing catch-up

    Even if out-of-work architects eventually are able to return to the profession, they face the prospect of catching up with technological advances and practices.

    Trahan remembers that when he graduated, architects still were drawing on paper with a parallel bar. Today, much of the design process is computerized.

    “With technology, the computer and software programs, the speed of this profession, I would guess like most, is at a whole other pace,” he says. “So things are moving really quickly.”

    Those who are in the profession, Trahan says, have a hard enough time keeping up with advances. Those who stay out of it for a period of time might have even more of a struggle.

    “Their skill sets are probably not going to advance to a degree that is required to probably live out their dream of working for a highly advanced, very technical design firm that competes not only on a local but regional and national level,” he says. “And that’s concerning.”

    The flip side is that many aspiring architects are opting to ride out the recession in the classroom, delaying their entry into the marketplace by pursuing an advanced degree.

    Goldberg says that could mean a strong crop of graduates down the line, when the economy does turn around.

    “There’s definitely been a point over the last couple of years where folks were looking for work outside their chosen area,” says Lisa Nice of Post Architecture, who is president of the Baton Rouge chapter of the American Institute of Architects. “But I don’t really see it as a lost generation. Some of them took the opportunity to go back to school and get a master’s degree, or work in a related field.”

    Not so bad in B.R.

    Capital Region architectural firms haven’t felt the sting as badly as their counterparts across the country, but the recession has had its effects.

    Trahan says his firm experienced about a year of slowdown in work. What also hurts firms is that construction costs are falling; many architectural fees are based on a percentage of the total project cost.

    “Our clients are getting more for their dollars than ever,” he says. “Most of our fees are percentage-based, and when a project comes in 25% less than it would have three years ago, our fee is 25% less, and our costs are the same.”

    He says the firm took the opportunity to “rethink things. We’ve said, ‘Where are we excessive in our spending, and how can we tighten up?’ That’s one of the good things that comes out of an economy like this. It reminds you that you can live with less.”

    What also helped Trahan Architects last year was opening a Chicago studio, hiring Leigh Breslau away from Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. The firm is now doing several projects in Chicago, Texas and Kentucky, and Trahan expects to hire a couple of architects from the next graduating class.

    Maher says Louisiana architects “absolutely were affected by this recession. Firms have taken it on the chin in the last two or three years and haven’t been able to hire.”

    Ritter Maher just returned to the LSU Design School recruiting program two months ago for the first time in a while. Only three Baton Rouge firms turned out, but Maher says he doesn’t know whether any of them were really hiring.

    “We wanted to see if there were any superstars we wanted to take a pass at, and we wanted to be ready should stuff break loose this summer,” he says. “Just because we’re better off than the rest of the country doesn’t mean it’s a bed of roses by any stretch.”

    Post Architecture, which won two major municipal contracts in recent years—the 19th Judicial District Courthouse and the River Center—felt minimal impact from the economic downturn, Nice says, and has been fully staffed the last several years. The firm is has been getting résumés from cities like New York and Seattle.

    For aspiring architects who are looking for work or working outside their profession, Goldberg has some advice: Stay connected. The firms you talk to today may have a lot of work tomorrow.

    “If you’ve made it through architecture school, you’ve already gone through an incredible process,” he says. “The economy is going to turn around, and there is going to be demand.”