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Post Recession, Architects Return To The Drawing Board


The latest government jobs report shows slow and steady gains in job creation. But for many architects, things remain tough. Five years ago, there were nearly 220,000 people working in the field, but today, a quarter of those positions are gone.

NPR's Wendy Kaufman has more.

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: We first met veteran architect Gary Barber back in 2010; he'd been laid off by a major architectural firm two years earlier two years earlier, and was looking for a full time job. He's still looking.


KAUFMAN: He's managed to find some small projects that keep him somewhat busy - projects like this soon to be opened Mexican restaurant.

GARY BARBER: There's going to be a walk-in cooler in the corner. This is their dish wash and scullery area. And we're going to - a tortilla machine over there that's going to sit right in the middle, and...


KAUFMAN: Barber turns away from our mini tour to talk to the onsite contractor about everything from the concrete floor - to how bright the lights should be. His passion for his work is obvious.

BARBER: Oh, I love it; I love this kind of stuff. It's just orchestrating. I mean, that's what architects do. You know, we orchestrate people's ideas into reality.

KAUFMAN: He says he's getting a bit more work than he did a year or two ago. But Barber is still making only about half of what he once earned. He'd loved to return to the stability and paycheck of a full time position.

BARBER: I'm a quantifiable asset, and not only do I bring my skills and experience to a job; I bring client contacts; I bring potential future work. You know, it's - if somebody can just take that second and look at my name and my qualifications and say, you know, this might be somebody to talk to, that's all I ask.

KAUFMAN: There are tens of thousands of architects like Barber who remain under-employed or unemployed. A sizeable number have left the profession entirely.

For those seeking work, there are some glimmers of hope. Residential and other construction is on the rise and architectural billings have been up - albeit slightly - for nine of the past 10 months.

KAREN THOMAS: We're back in the saddle here.

KAUFMAN: Karen Thomas is a managing director of Gensler, one of the nation's largest and most prestigious architectural firms. It's benefiting from a resurgence in the overall economy, but also doing some work it wouldn't ordinarily do.

THOMAS: We are definitely hiring.

KAUFMAN: Indeed, hiring is brisk; there are more architects there now than before the recession.

The economic downturn hit many small and mid-sized architectural firms harder than large firms. And Thomas says the firm is doing some projects smaller groups used to do.

Still, the vast majority of its work is bigger stuff - like a new headquarters building for a technology giant; working with developers who want to build new hi-rise commercial projects; and tenant improvement work for many companies.

THOMAS: They've either decided to finally make the move and are leasing new space or they're staying in their existing space and finally are feeling confident enough to reinvest in their environment and where they are.

KAUFMAN: As the large architectural firms have gotten bigger and doing some small firm work, there are fewer opportunities for other architects. But that should change as the economy continues to improve and there's more work to go around.

There's another factor that may be affecting the employment outlook. Scott Wyatt, the managing partner at another large firm, NBBJ, suggests there's a mismatch between the experience and skills some employers want and those job seekers have. He says this recession has really sped up globalization within his industry.

SCOTT WYATT: If something can be done better, cheaper or faster somewhere else, it will be.

KAUFMAN: Routine drawings, for example, are easily outsourced.

With clients like Amazon and Google, what Wyatt is looking for are architects who can figure out what clients want or need to enhance their business - translate that into beautiful and efficient buildings and communicate that vision along the way.

WYATT: It means that what it is to be an architect is a lot different. And if you've been trained in what architecture was, you've either go to retrain or look for a different business.

KAUFMAN: Not exactly encouraging words for some of those architects who remain out of work.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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