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Architects design the industry's future

Daily Journal of Commerce

December 23rd 2010

Experience is essential in the architecture field. That is why architecture students are required to intern for three years before taking their licensing exam, how architects gain the trust of clients and build the reputation of their firms, and why baby boomer principals are so valued.

These days, experience also is elusive. Even as business improves, hires remain few and far between; and while firms prepare for the loss of older talent, a growing number of young professionals are struggling to gain the necessary experience to establish a foothold in the field.

"I've been here long enough now to watch how things go up and down in cycles," said Saundra Stevens, executive vice president of the American Institute of Architects' Portland chapter. "And this is a tough time for architecture professionals in Oregon."

Architecture and engineering have mirrored the downtrend in construction, shedding jobs consistently for more than two years. In Oregon, the sector employed 11,800 in February, down from 15,600 in late 2007, according to the Oregon Employment Department.

Stevens noticed a nationwide talent drain three or four years ago, when baby boomer architects began retiring.

But those worries were clouded over by the recession.

It's still a concern, and according to the 2009 Boston College Sloan Center's survey on aging and work, 40 percent of organizations surveyed believe the exodus of older workers could create a talent drain and potentially disturb their business by 2012.

Jonah Cohen, managing principal of THA Architecture, believes that transition is the main concern.

"When you have an established practice, you identify the people who you think are future leaders of the firm 10 years before you want them to be fully in control. Then there is an orderly process of exposing them to the skills and stresses you need to lead the firm. You don't just drop them in a vat of oil; you slowly introduce them so they have the skills to take on leadership."

In order to do this, current leaders need to make delegation a priority, Cohen said. "A lot of firms make the mistake of saying, 'I've been doing it all along so I know what's best.' But that's not going to nurture the next generation."

Jeff Myhre, president and cofounder of Myhre Group Architects, says his firm won't face a difficult ownership transition, but it will need to transition relationships with clients. While most firms' founders are in their late 70s and early 80s, Myhre is only in his mid 40s, and the greater part of his staffers are in their 40s and 50s.

"I do have some baby boomers on staff and when they decide to retire, it's going to be a loss. They've got really great relationships that go back a long way. You have to appropriately transition those relationships or risk losing them," Myhre said.

Another potential challenge with baby boomer retirements is the added pressure on younger people to perform at higher levels of leadership positions, Myhre said.

"Guys like me in their mid 40s are going to be required to take on more leadership responsibility than the prior generation did; the guy that became the president of his company traditionally at age 50 - well now that person might be 40 or 45."

One question is whether enough young people will enter the field to eventually take on that responsibility. While established architects may be worried about transition troubles related to baby boomer retirements, the bigger problem may be absorbing a new generation into the workforce. And in a sluggish economy, firms aren't rushing to hire personnel.

"There was a real concern that there weren't enough architects in the profession, and that was the number one topic on everyone's minds five years ago before the recession hit hard," Stevens said. "I still think that it's is a valid concern for firm principals."

Stevens remembers a similar worry voiced during the recession of the early 1980s, when there was speculation about a "lost generation" of architects who couldn't find employment after college, pursued work in other professions and didn't come back.

Presently, there is no shortage of students pursuing degrees. Total enrollment in the architecture department at the University of Oregon has increased from 634 to only 683 in the past five years because of limited space; however, applications have increased from 607 in 2006 to 808 in 2009, according to Helga Wood, admissions adviser for the department.

The Portland State University architecture program, with a current enrollment of 300, has also seen growth in the number of applicants; the program has become more competitive as a result, according to Maggie Maxwell, communications coordinator for the department.

But a diploma does not equal a job, or even an internship, in today's economy; and the competition does not stay in the classroom.

Neither UO nor PSU has a formal internship placement program. Students must research their options, Maxwell said.

And finding internship opportunities and jobs in the Portland area is easier said than done, according to Michael Fifield, a UO architecture professor.

"A few years ago, all of our grads were getting jobs right away. This past year, there are still a lot of people who graduated in June who don't have a job in architecture," Fifield said.

Like most architecture firms in the Portland area, Myhre Group Architects has not done much hiring in the past couple of years. And competition for internship positions is extreme.

"We take the best and brightest," Myhre said. "Employers can be choosy."

With younger architects out of work, the fear is that many will leave the field out of necessity, which would in turn create a future imbalance of talent at different levels of development.

"They will get into other professions, and 10 years from now there will be a shortage of people who are in the middle of architecture careers," Cohen said. "With a great downturn, it becomes like a lost generation, and that can make it hard."

Ankrom Moisan is one firm working to improve its internship program, one of the first things it let slip when the economy got rough. But Ruth Lloyd, an office manager and administrative principal at Ankrom Moisan, said the firm will look to rehire employees it let go before it seeks new talent.

Ankrom intern Chris Lewis, who was let go in February 2009 because of a lack of hospitality projects, was rehired in October and said his views and priorities have since changed.

"The biggest responsibility of a firm is to train the next generation of architects," Lewis said. "We need to get the younger generation in. Right now you've got boomers that are looking to retire but can't because of financial reasons. The firm as a whole can use them as resources, but there are firms that are top-heavy in terms of experience, with not as many new graduates to mentor."

And with the hardships that piggyback a recession, many Ankrom Moisan architects who reach retirement age choose to simply work less, according to Lloyd.

"To a large degree, they stay with us even after they've 'quit,' " Lloyd said. "I think it gives them enough time to help them mentor the younger group that will be taking over."

Other firms have already taken on the challenge of mentoring despite tough economic times. SUM Design

Studio has made a strong effort to get Portland State University architecture students in the office. The firm plans to take on a new intern every six months.

"We like the idea of fresh ideas and helping people in the architecture school understand about the reality of the work environment, and it's something we're trying to do more of," cofounder Eric Hoffman said.

THA Architecture has five interns and a formal mentorship program involving all employees.

Faster-than-average job growth is expected for architects through the year 2016. According to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the field is projected to see 23,000 new jobs nationwide - 18 percent growth - over the next six years.

Stevens said graduates are visiting the American Institute of Architects office to post their information on job boards and taking advantage of a national AIA membership. The number of people engaging in Emerging Professionals Committee classes, which provide licensing exam study help, and the number of architects getting licensed have also increased in 2010, according to Stevens.

"These are little glimmers (of hope) that graduates aren't giving up; they're just working harder and using the resources we have available here for them," Stevens said.

The cycle of retirements and new hires, after all, will never end.

"We joke when we see some incredible young intern with amazing skills and realize that we might be working for them someday," Cohen said.