Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Things are tough all over

Fellow architect and job captain Liz and I commiserated in the ladies room yesterday about how unnerving the quiet is around the office. Not only are there fewer of us around, but there's not a whole lot of work to do. She and Jacqueline have a dark-humored competition on who can get the most billable hours in a week--usually that's only two or three hours, spent helping someone with specs or shop drawings or something. Guy heard through the grapevine recently (and from a pretty reliable source) that if Design Associates doesn't get some more work in the next couple of months, there will be more layoffs in the spring. Which leaves me wondering, who the hell will do the work? They've laid off probably half the interns and even some licensed folks. If they lay off the rest of us, who will do the drawings and meetings and shops as cheaply as we will?

I got a comment recently on this post about how the layoffs affect especially interns. The commenter, one of several named "Anonymous" on that particular post, summed it up with "Architects eats their young. There are a lot of great careers out there - this isn't one of them."

Hm. Well. I agree to a certain extent.

Having spent nearly nine years in this profession, only the last 2.5 as a licensed architect, I've had the opportunity to see both sides of the Licensing River as well as get a view from the upper rungs of the bottom of the ladder. What I learned is that architecture hazes its interns, its new people, the fresh thinkers and good new minds. Architecture pays interns crap and provides (by and large) few benefits real or imagined. Architecture works these interns extremely hard for a very long time (many interns' incomes are based on a 45-hour or 50-hour week) and sometimes won't even give them the experiences they need to succeed and to be good future architects--like actively engaging them in construction administration, involving them in contracts and bidding, and taking them on-site to see how what they draw really matters. Some firms are quick to dump employees, usually from the bottom. Guy mentioned a few firm names this evening here in Denver that dumped folks as early as 18 months ago and have a reputation for being layoff-happy. And the bosses of these firms are people who just want to draw beautiful buildings and know jack squat about payroll and marketing, and so their firms--their businesses--often flounder under their crappy management. And let's face it, architecture school does nothing to prepare its graduates to deal with basic business matters. And between the layoffs and the bad pay and the mistreatment and disrespect and bad management, we lose interns along the way, some of them really good. Some of them quit to go do related careers, like computer modeling or animating or even architectural photography. Some of them go off to start new, unrelated careers. And it's not cool.

Having said that, allow me to speak to all two interns that might read this digital tripe I call a blog: it gets better. Getting licensed allows even a moderately decent architectural professional to see a decent jump in pay, and getting licensed plus changing firms gets you more cash. The firm at which I work, Design Associates, slowly got rid of people last year and saved the two big layoffs for the fall, when everything really went to hell, and it wasn't until the last big round in November that they got rid of a substantial number of licensed folks. (I should mention here that DA has a reputation in da Mile High for being loathe to lay people off. We knew the economy was in the shitter when they laid off more than 4 people at once.) And sadly for interns, even really good ones, being licensed saves your job because a licensed job captain can draw in CAD and Revit like an intern, but he or she also has the experience to meet with clients, edit specs, and run projects like a project manager and do it all for a lot less than a project manager.

But hanging over all of these points is, frankly, the economy. Newcomers to WAD may not know that we hourly folks at DA have been asked to go to 36 hours a week. We've voluntarily taken a 10% pay cut to keep our jobs, and it turns out that even the higher-ups, the associates who are on salary, have taken 10% pay cuts as well. Consider the many new members of our white-collar workforce--all the lawyers and accountants and teachers and even software designers--who suddenly find themselves under-employed or unemployed. And working, alas, at Target.

Architecture as a profession is one of great risk and great rewards. It's like a growth stock: If you can stomach the risks, then you may indeed reap huge benefits. Or not. It's a profession that relies greatly on the economy, and right now, with banks not lending and bond issues not passing and the bond market being in the toilet and nothing going on, we have nothing to do and many firms have either laid off like crazy or are going under. Just like scads of restaurants and consulting firms and stores and all kinds of other businesses right now. So we're socking away some cash, crossing our fingers, and thankful we have what we have for now.


2H said...


I took four calls on Monday morning from different contractors around the city – all of them wanting to know if I had anything cooking – asking if they could get in on anything developing on the boards. The really depressing thing was that these weren’t bottom feeders – these were established, highly regarded builders – the guys I usually count on for my leads. These were people I feel honored to be able to work with.
I got more calls from contractors in January than I even knew existed. It’s like watching the sky turn to pea soup millions of years ago after that big meteor hit. I have a front row seat to watch the apatosaurus die out.

See you on the other side…

Small Town said...

The GC I work with has been trying the same approach. They were 1 of 25 bidders on a small municipal police station reno, a job they probably wouldn't even had looked at a year ago. A PM in the office joked this morning,"the residential builders are coming after our work and now we're going after theirs".

Wilderness Gina said...

Are Maddy and Squaze willing to walk the street? Better keep that on the DL since it's against the law to sell pussy in Denver. That's your "Ask Mom" for this week.