It’s been a year since my “Winter Commencement” discussion, and just a few days since I gave my annual talk to our graduating students about the state of the construction economy and what that means for their spring job hunt. And since ArchDaily decided to repost that blog recently, it seemed timely to reflect a bit on how things have changed since December of 2011, and what those changes might mean for job prospects going forward.
And what a difference a year makes, at least for this year’s graduating class. The elections are over, most of the economic malaise, while not lifted here in the U.S, is certainly lighter, and designing, building and, most importantly, hiring seems to be on the rise again. In fact, for the first time since 2009, I suggested to our students that prospects for their employment are the brightest of the young decade. Here’s my reasoning:
Capital is starting to flow and projects are starting up again in the United States. A lot of money has been sitting on the sidelines during the economic crisis, and it’s starting to move into construction again. “Long money” projects (like hospitals and university projects) slowed but didn’t completely stop in the last three years and several projection suggest they are accelerating again. The AIA’s Architectural Billings Index is on a five-month climb and is stronger than it has been in five years. This means clients are starting to convert inquiries for work into actual projects. A lot of larger firms in the U.S kept the lights on with work in Asia, India and Russia, and that work continues even as local projects begin to perk up.
Expanding work means firms need to hire after the draconian contractions of the last several years. With total employment in U.S firms (according to the AIA) down from 220,000 in 2008 to 153,000 in late 2010, many firms haven’t filled a new position for a long time, and my (admittedly anecdotal) discussions with firms around the country suggest that lots are starting to hire again. The rampant destruction of design and construction capacity in the downturn—where clients took advantage of tough times to drive fees and costs as low as possible—probably pushed the real capacity of the industry below what it needs to actually function normally. And with homebuilding surging again, there are actual shortages in construction labor in some markets. Many of the several million construction workers who left in the recession are likely never coming back, making the next several years look profitable for the survivors. The same will be true for architects.
Technology isn’t optional anymore in most practices and construction sites. BIM adoption by architects, engineers and builders in the U.S is now above 70% according to recently published studies, and most firms are expanding their digital muscle, creating demand for digitally savvy employees. BIM-enabled designers have always been in high demand, and that demand will increase as construction relies on digital information. Architects with experience managing BIM-based projects will have lots of options. But almost every recent graduate of architecture school is more digitally enabled than the folks fifteen years their senior, and those skills are increasingly in demand. As some baby-boomer architects (and their construction superintendent counterparts) begin to retire, some of the digitally disabled make room for younger stock. [Important note, however: upward mobility in firms will likely be retarded by some baby boomers, whose retirement savings were devastated during the crisis, who have to work longer to survive.]
Integration in the delivery supply chain increases demand for architects as more “vertically integrated” businesses like large contractors, super-sized AE practices and other models evolve to provide a continuum of services from feasibility through construction to building operation. Those firms find architects to be very useful, not just in traditional roles but across the services continuum. A well-trained designer can lead a lot of different kinds of projects, using her problem-solving skills in unique ways. So there will be more spots for a young practitioner to start a career or develop skills, and perhaps some new trajectories through the profession itself.
So all this means that the employment prospects for the next couple of years seem pretty good. But before we breath a huge collective sigh of relief that the worst is forever over, remember that the construction industry, like the economy upon which it depends is heavily cyclical, riding up and down every three to five years. Here’s a graph of the AIA’s ABI from 1996 through 2012:
I’ve been through at least five of these downturns, and probably haven’t seen the last one before I pack it in. Architectural jobs will come and go accordingly. The bigger question, touched on in this blog and elsewhere, is not so much how many architects will be working, but what they will be doing when they are. We exit this downturn slowly, and the surviving firms—both architects and contractors—have been tempered by the experience. As work begins to accelerate again, many of the questions of how design and construction are connected, how design information transits from intent to execution, how professional roles and responsibilities are allocated, and the what value architectural services might have will once again in be in high relief. Changes in the means of representation (like BIM), the implications and responsibilities of design for building operation (like LEED), and the modes of project execution and delivery (like IPD) will create both big challenges and even bigger opportunities for architects. Let’s not just ride this upturn in the ABI to its inevitable turn back downward without addressing them.