the employment crisis in architecture: a modest proposal

architecture, anyone?  anyone???

A very tasteful associate of MoT passed along the following comment made in response to the New York Times article, “Want a Job?  Go to College, and Don’t Major in Architecture,” which appeared on January 5, 2012:

Im waiting for the matters of taste blog or the Onion to find a way to see humor in this grim topic circulating amongst architects….
Taste would never ignore our loyal fan base (although we would encourage our readers to take greater care with punctuation)–especially when they mention us in the same virtual breath as that paragon of journalistic virtue, the Onion.  (Not to mention, in the context of the Old Gray Lady–or at least her electronic counterpart–, which we believe, by extension, means that MoT has basically been published by the Times, so you may as well say it’s as if MoT has also won 106 Pulitzers.)
     Here’s the scoop.  The NYT article, based on a report published by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, cited dire statistics for the profession:
The unemployment rate for recent graduates was highest in architecture, at 13.9 percent. . . .  Even architecture majors who went on to receive graduate degrees, which usually safeguard workers from unemployment, are doing poorly in the job market. 
This news, and the cries of despondency and outage that it prompted from the realms of architectural education and practice, has circulated around MoT HQ for a few months now.  In response, the staff has fanned across the country to seek further evidence to understand the issue and build a strategy for recovery.
     One of our researchers completed a significant line of research at the annual conference of the American Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA), which met in Boston in early March.  As the professional organization of professionals who teach in the academy, the ACSA represents the people who are ultimately responsible for the numbers and quality of would-be architects being heaved into the world on an annual basis.  In response to the Georgetown Center’s report, ACSA invited Kermit Baker, chief economist for the AIA, to interpret the recent unemployment statistics.  Filled with data from the US Dept. of Labor, his presentation was sobering, instructive, and ultimately inspirational to MoT‘s representative who attended the meeting.
     According to Mr. Baker, although the precipitous rise in unemployment (over 60,000 payroll positions at US architecture firms lost since 2008, representing about a third of the workforce) cuts across all levels of experience, it is recent graduates and younger professionals who have borne the brunt of these layoffs.  Looking to the sunny side, Mr. Baker confirmed that, for those who hang on to jobs, compensation remains healthy–at least relative to landscape, graphic, and interior designers.  The average staff salary for architecture positions remains the highest among the design professions at $83,400–for those who can get their foot in the door.  What stands between the younger practitioner and a position in the field is in part driven by global economic circumstances, but not entirely so.  Mr. Baker stressed the point that younger professionals’ advance into practice was also the function of an employment bottleneck occasioned by baby boomitects, who are working more years than their forebears and thus simply not making room for the next generation.
     These turtlenecked and bespectacled creatures lurking in the corner offices and prime cubicles of drafting rooms are an immovable resistance against the aspirations of younger practitioners.  Having graduated from programs that did little to cultivate their ability to figure out any alternate employment, or even a hobby, they have nothing to do but wander the streets or take shelter in familiar environments.  It is a melancholy object to those who see Starbucks cafes, bookstores (especially in periodicals sections where Dwell is shelved), and Apple stores crowded with young, unemployed architects, while—potentially on upper levels of the same loft buildings—mature architects, aged 50+, run their hands through their graying hair, hoping that the new website designed by their nephew will be the one to get the phones ringing again.
     This deplorable state of the profession has spread throughout the architectural community and has been met by little meaningful response.  Academics and economists, profundity-spewing pundits and nattering nabobs have weighed in, offering a little hope for the future, a lot of hand-wringing, and the occasional NPR story about some architect who was able to turn the recession into an opportunity to strike out in some entrepreneurial way (like John Morefield, shown above).  But the fact is that architects tend to show less entrepreneurial capabilities than one might expect them to have; as a result, the main response to the problem has been to talk and wait, to hope and despair, to draw another interior view of the Starbucks where you hang out all day long soaking up the free Wi-Fi.  Until now.
     Based on Mr. Baker’s data, MoT’s Chief Economist and Crystal Ball Seer* poses a solution to the current crisis in employment among architects: a modest proposal for transforming the elder statesmen in the architecture profession from status as burden on the profession to multi-faceted benefit for younger practitioners.
     The fact is, even an older, but still healthy architect, is a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled; no doubt it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.  Years, perhaps decades, of surviving on Thai carry-out and Mocha Frappucchinos might not ensure the healthiest cuts of meat, but this regular feed contributes to an extensive marbling that ensures flavor and tenderness, especially when one considers the controlled, caged environment in which architects are farmed, with little natural exercise to stiffen the musculature.  (The only part to be wary of is the right arm, which is the one most likely made tough by a career of mouse-clicking, wall-punching, and gripping telephones with excessive force.)
     The advantages of this proposal are obvious and many.  It allows older architects to contribute to the professional (and nutritional) development of younger architects, instead of forcing their positions as a grievous encumbrance upon the community.  By greatly reducing the number of mature architects, with which the profession is overrun, not only will streams of employment open, but valuable caches of treasure (designer eyeglass frames, underused golf clubs, Mont Blanc pens, iPads, Lego kits of the Guggenheim) can be sold off to pay off student loans.  It makes the golden years of a worn-out architect’s life more golden; while their love of Brutalism and resistance to sustainability would indicate to their colleagues that it’s time for them to go, their peers will not shove them out the door as much as ply them with fattening foods to make their final days (and them, literally) delicious for that day when The End finally does come.  Like beef and pork, architect might be sold in markets as various cuts; the AIA–already so skilled at taking their cut of an architect’s livelihood–could probably skim a reasonable percentage by going into the butchering business and providing low-cost, nutritious food to its own aspiring membership (literally on the backs of its aging expiring membership), especially those who are so used to living close to the bone from ‘enrolling’ in those no-pay ‘internships’ we hear about from time to time.  Of course there is the dietary profit of a new dish introduced to the tables of all gentlemen of fortune who have any refinement in taste–some of whom, in a delightful twist of fate, may have once dined with the architect from whom they commissioned a stellar museum or office building and whom they now dine on!  This culinary potential will doubtless affect the fortunes of some would-be architects who had that “Cooking is just like architecture—I could be a chef!” moment during one of the post-graduation days they spent wandering the aisles of Best Buy, catching up on old episodes of Top Chef.  Recent graduates could adopt the job of the very architect that they digest; two or three could be employed at the salary of the deceased. Even earning just under $30,000 they would enjoy the benefit of knowing that they earn as much as shift supervisors at Starbucks and definitely more (maybe tenfold) than the adjunct professors who taught all those pro-practice and tech courses.  (Worth noting: of the three, it’s probably only the Starbucks manager who gets benefits.)
     While MoT expects wide support for this modest proposal to ease the present employment conundrum, it has one additional suggestion to offer.  MoT‘s Department of Wishful Thinking suggests the expansion of a highly successful yet woefully underfunded project founded in 1933 to assist the thousands of architects, draftsmen and photographers who were thrown out of work by the Great Depression.  The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), which has amassed a huge collection of material on every conceivable kind of building–perhaps an unparallaled national collection of resources on 38,600 structures nationwide.  That program was built on a powerful pair of realities: a government that could help its people (and not just its massive, too-big-to-fail businesses) without being denounced as “socialist,” and a professional corps that cared about national heritage as much as regular folk did.  But, since both are in as short supply as those gentlemen’s fedoras, MoT recommends to the profession a change of menu.

*Who also serves as MoT‘s Head of Eighteenth-Century Brit Lit Criticism; we tend to be interdisciplinary that way.

workin’ it: HABS architects at the Kentucky School for the Blind in Louisville (March 1934)


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