"Market power is critical to the future of design firms. There is neither time nor the resources for design firms to know all they need to by themselves. Who do they look to? They look to Kerry Harding for support, thoughtful ideas, useful advice, and coaching...he offers a complete tool kit of ideas for professionals."

James P. Cramer, Hon AIA, Hon IIDA
Chairman & CEO
The Greenway Group
Norcross, GA

The Candidate Crisis: Bridging the Gap Between Good Firms and Great People

December 13, 2006
by Kerry Harding

Last spring, a graduating architectural student flew to Washington, DC, to interview for an entry-level design position. Prior to his arrival, he researched and contacted nearly 20 firms, securing nine interviews. From his side, he did everything right. He was impeccably dressed. His portfolio was attractively organized and professional. He confirmed each appointment prior to his arrival. He prepared a list of questions specific to each firm should the opportunity to ask them arise.

At the end of the week, he received seven offers, one of which he accepted. He expressed bewilderment at the diversity of experiences he’d had and tried to make sense of the process which he’d just completed. Even though he’d arrived slightly before the appointed interview time in each case, some kept him waiting thirty, sixty, even ninety minutes beyond his scheduled appointment, prior to beginning the interview. In nearly every case, his treatment by an administrative staff member soured him on the firm before his interview even began. Each firm’s representative seemed to imply the question, “Convince us why we should hire you?” They offered little about the firm, its body of work, and its culture. In most cases, this young man wasn’t even invited to discuss his resume or the portfolio he’d been asked to bring along.

There was one exception, however. The managing principal of the regional office of the Preston Partnership came into the reception area himself to greet the candidate. He was on time. He addressed the candidate as “Mr.” He invited him into the boardroom and then proceeded to tell him about the firm, how proud he was to work there, why the candidate should come to work there, how he would fit in, and what his career path would be. He explained the salary structure and benefit plan. He walked the candidate around the office, explained what each team was working on, and introduced each person they met. It was obvious to the candidate that each employee felt valued, respected, and an integral part of the team. As they returned to the boardroom, the managing principal said, “I see that you’ve brought some examples of your work to share. As we look through this together, explain to me what each of these projects has taught you that you can apply here in my firm.” At the end of that discussion, without checking GPA’s or references, the man said, “I want you here. We are prepared to offer you a starting salary of $53,000 plus a $2,000 signing bonus. Take a couple of days to think about it. If you have any questions about working here, call anyone you’ve met and ask them anything you want.”

It didn’t matter that the offer was a couple of thousand dollars more than the next closest offer from the other six firms, although it was. By the time that hour and a half interview was over, this young man felt he couldn’t possibly want to work with any firm more than he did with this one.
Five years ago, the market was very different. Fallout from 9/11 had resulted in sweeping project postponements and cancellations. Downsizing and layoffs resulted across the board. Salary reductions, benefit cutbacks, and the elimination of bonuses and raises kept many firms afloat. Faced with a lack of opportunities, graduates of architectural design programs migrated to other fields more interested in their computer skills than their creative thinking and problem solving abilities.

Since then, in most markets, the building boom is still cresting. Firms, large and small, need savvy production assistance to get large, complex projects from conceptual design through construction documents. It is not uncommon to hear those tasked with the recruiting function within their firms lamenting the fact that they need to immediately hire ten, fifteen, even twenty-five to thirty professionals in the 0-8 years of experience category. One large, multi-office firm’s backlog revealed a current staffing shortage of 119 CADD architects to keep pace with work already under contract.

Demand is forecasted to increase by roughly 32,000 positions per year through 2014. While many of these slots were formerly filled by immigrants working for US firms under H1-B visas, the quotas and restrictions instituted by the Office of Homeland Security after 9/11 have created approval bottlenecks of 2-3 years for processing, enhancing demand for graduates from the nation’s 114 accredited architectural programs.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, besides employment growth, additional job openings will arise from the need to replace the many architects who are nearing retirement, and others who transfer to different occupations or stop working for other reasons. Competition will be especially keen for jobs at the most prestigious architectural firms as prospective architects try to build their reputations.

Current demographic trends also support an increase in demand for architects. As the population of Sunbelt States continues to grow, the people living there will need new places to live and work. As the population continues to live longer and baby-boomers begin to retire there will be a need for more healthcare facilities, nursing homes, and retirement communities. In education, buildings at all levels are getting older and class sizes are getting larger. This will require many school districts and universities to build new facilities and renovate existing ones.

In recent years, some firms began outsourcing, to architecture firms overseas, the drafting of construction documents for large-scale commercial and residential projects. This trend is expected to continue and may have a negative impact on employment growth for lower level architects and interns who would normally gain experience by producing these drawings. However, most firms will keep design services in-house, and opportunities will be best for those architects that are able to illustrate creativity and problem solving skills.

How can today’s graduates best prepare for the emerging recruiting trends to the end of this decade and beyond? The top five skills hiring managers say will be most critical to their businesses and most attractive in potential candidates are:

Enhanced client service skills

Faced with mounting workloads, day-to-day client service responsibilities are being delegated farther down the career ladder than ever before. Entry level professionals must realize that promptly returning phone calls, responding to emails and requests for information, and keeping clients apprised of progress and hiccups alike are just as integral to a project’s success as is its design concept.

Exhibit critical thinking

Though it might not seem like it at the time, young architects have been taught to be more than just draftspersons. Creativity and ingenuity are ageless principles. Some of the best ideas have come from the youngest person on a project team who was not afraid to ask the question, “What if we did it this way?”

Ability to improve productivity

Most young talent is compensated on a multiplier of some hourly rate as opposed to the value-added dollar amount of the design solution. Finding ways to do things faster, cheaper, and/or more efficiently results in a better bottom line and helps distinguish future leaders from their peers.

Maintaining technology proficiency

It is now assumed that today’s design school graduates are not only familiar with, but proficient at such programs as 3D Studio, Dreamweaver, Revit, Photoshop, and Quark Xpress, in addition to all of the standard computer-aided drafting programs. More and more firms are looking to younger graduates with advanced website and intranet design and maintenance capabilities.

Motivating and building teams

This is where outside interests really distinguish young candidates. Fraternity/sorority offices, varsity athletics, scouting, volunteer service - each contributes something unique to a candidate’s skills outside of those gleaned from a design studio. With chat-rooms, blogs, social networking services, and group dates becoming the social norms, firms will covet candidates who’ve demonstrated strong interpersonal skills.
From the other side of the table, to hook the most qualified swimmers in the talent pool, AE firm principals and hiring managers need to rethink their strategies when it comes to recruiting members of Generation Y.

Electronic Recruitment isn’t a fad

For those people who grew up with the Internet, instant messaging, Facebook and Itunes, on-line job boards are the media of choice. In a recent survey conducted of recruiting venues, only twelve percent of those in the 18-25 age group looked for jobs in the newspaper. Only half a percent said they read recruitment advertising in national design magazines. More effective? Company website based career postings or national recruitment job boards such as Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com, along with new entries such as archizilla.com, e-architect.com, and ritesite.com.
Lifestyle benefits are driving offer acceptance
As the Internet has created a savvy auto-buying public, it has also equipped new graduates with average salary, benefit, and cost-of-living issues to enable them to accurately evaluate total compensation value of offers from multiple markets. They look for workplace flexibility, cafeteria benefit plans, and the firm’s commitment to enabling a work/life balance as well as the firm’s work culture itself.
The recruiting process continues to shorten
Gone are the days when a firm can take three to six weeks to interview a handful of carefully screened candidates before making an offer. Candidates now expect an immediate response to a résumé submittal, an interview within five days, and an offer or rejection within 48 hours - because they have multiple offers to evaluate. Those firms who refuse to accept this are destined to lose the best people to those firms that can quickly distinguish great talent from mediocre.

Recruit with your starters - not your bench

Too many firms lose great candidates because they fail to put their best foot forward and substitute lower-level administrative staff to sell a candidate on why he/she should work for the firm. Frequently, these people aren’t sufficiently experienced in or informed about the position or the firm to effectively conduct the interview. Given the current and predicted talent shortage, coupled with the costs associated with recruiting and training a new staff member, an hour of a key staff member’s time at the beginning of the interview phase can pay huge dividends in closing the deal.

With a quarter of a century in this profession, I’ve seen good firms become great and once great firms fall quickly into disarray because they failed to realize that people were a more marketable commodity than process. In AE recruiting, the adage “opposites attract” doesn’t hold as true as “like attracts like.” While “brand name” firms will automatically attract many of the top candidates, carefully identifying potential stars, working to understand their driving force, and then responding accordingly with personal commitment and market-driven compensation, will enable those firms aspiring to greatness to attract and retain the level of talent they desire.

Kerry Harding is president of The Talent Bank, Inc., an executive search firm based in the Washington, DC area, specializing exclusively in AE firm recruitment. He is a former managing editor and current contributing editor to DesignIntelligence.