Once upon a time, a lucrative 60-hour per-week office job at a respectable New York or Boston architecture firm was the natural step for an Eli who had just completed a master’s program in architecture. Graduate students did not even have to look for jobs: Firms came to Yale, conducted interviews and hired on the spot.
But not anymore. Architecture is one of the numerous industries deeply affected by the global financial crisis, forcing students to pursue alternate job options. Accepting a temporary post in a different country or choosing a related profession may be the best options for recent graduates, three professors interviewed said. In the face of economic turmoil and layoffs across the board, four out of the six students interviewed said they are willing to settle for much less than their dream job.
Architecture was hit hard by the economic recession because it is dependent entirely on capital flow and credits, said Phil Bernstein ’79 ARC ’83, who teaches a professional practice course at the Yale School of Architecture.
“Sixty-five thousand construction workers lost their jobs, non-residential construction shrunk by 11 or 12 percent [approximately a $50 billion contraction], and all architecture firms are contracting in size by somewhere between 10 and 60 percent,” Bernstein said. “There is no way to sugarcoat this.”
In response to economic instability and concerns about the small number of hiring firms, the School of Architecture expanded its career services program with improved e-recruiting, mentoring and workshops to help students find jobs.. School of Architecture Assistant Dean Bimal Mendis, who leads career services at the Architecture School, said there are still opportunities available, but students will have to look harder to find them.
“My advice would be that students start earlier and be more proactive,” Mendis said. “It’s going to be a longer process and a harder struggle, but they should not get pessimistic.”
Mendis added that the school is working on an online database to reach alumni and develop a tighter network to benefit students.
Yet sixstudents interviewed — both senior undergraduate architecture majors and third-year students at the Architecture School — said there is low morale among their classmates concerning the job market.
“People are pretty nervous about graduating,” Matt Roman ARC ’09 said. “Professors are very realistic about what next year will bring for us, and it’s not promising.”
Although students said the Architecture School does not encourage students to look outside the profession, some students are considering construction management, graphic design, set design, animation, illustration and even jobs in the movie and fashion industries as viable alternatives.
“I will try to apply to a diverse group of firms, including graphic design and furniture design firms,” Seher Erdogan ARC ’09 said. “I would prefer to work at an architecture firm, but I don’t want to limit my options because we are constantly hearing of major architecture firms laying off workers.”
Recently, Foster + Partners, a London-based architecture firm led by Yale alum Lord Norman Foster ARC ’62, laid off 300 people. And School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65 and Charles Gwathmey ARC ’62 said their firms, Robert A.M. Stern Architects and Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects, respectively, are currently not hiring new workers.
Both Bernstein and Mendis said there are other countries with job opportunities where architecture is still flourishing, at least in comparison to the United States. They named Shanghai and Abu Dhabi as two cities where students might find work.
But Erdogan said she and her peers see venturing to an unknown city at a time of financial instability as risky.
“The financial crisis is at an earlier stage in the rest of the world and it is unclear what will happen in the near future,” she said. “I would rather stay at a friend’s place in New York than end up without a job in a city I don’t know six months from now.”
A BRIGHTER FUTURE?
Though the grim realities of the architecture job market are breeding uncertainty today, it may restructure the profession in the future, School of Architecture professor Peter Eisenman explained. This will force architects to re-evaluate their hiring practices, he noted.
“The profession was too bloated from excesses: Offices were too large, work was not investigated, there were too many haves and not enough have-nots,” Eisenman said. “It is going to be very difficult to find jobs in New York, Boston, Chicago or L.A. now, but this will also be a terrific corrective and give the profession time to think about what to do next.”
And Roman said he believes this new process, with its more rigorous approach, could benefit Yale architecture graduates, who are in the top of their field.
“Firms are using this opportunity to let go of people who don’t fit their standards and hoping to secure the best people right now so that in a couple of years they will be at a really good position,” Roman said, noting that Yale students have an advantage.
Benny Sachs ’09, an architecture major at Yale College, added that the pressure is less intense for undergraduates, who are also entering the job market but are not as far along in their careers.
“The situation is pretty bad for everyone, but probably worse for Architecture School graduates because they have all their loans to pay,” Sachs said.
Sachs said he is not worried about securing a permanent job because he later plans to attend graduate school. His plans, however, are part of a larger trend. As in other years when the economy is bad, there is a surge in applicants to graduate schools.
“We have high levels of applicants for all our programs, which reflects people saying, ‘My gosh, I’ll use these difficult times to improve my education,’ ” Stern said.
In addition, though the approximately $130 billion earmarked for building projects in President Barack Obama’s stimulus package target infrastructure construction rather than design, Mendis said the effects would trickle down to architecture.
In the meantime, it will be increasingly difficult to finance projects, leaving the landscape of cities, such as New York, “virtually unchanged,” as The New York Times reported in December. But despite fears about layoffs and construction halts, Zak Snider ARC ’09 said Yale graduates are equipped to weather the storm.
“The people who stick with it will have greater success when the tide turns,” Snider said.