"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

Narrowing the Talent Gap

January 1, 2001
by Kerry Harding

During the 1960s, one of the icons of the anti-war movement was a mournful ballad by Peter, Paul & Mary called “Where Have All The Flowers Gone.” Today, firm principals could be substituting “interns” for “flowers” because, for many firms, the supply has dried up.

Let’s look at the figures. In 1998, the most current year for which statistics are available, there were approximately 2,300 degrees awarded in professional Bachelor of Architecture programs. This was supplemented by 2,200 pre-professional degrees from four-year programs and 1,800 professional degrees in Master of Architecture programs. According to published sources, there are approximately 30,000 architectural firms in the U.S. alone. Factoring in those large, multi-office firms, there are 42,000 architectural offices of U.S. firms-not counting the “in-house” architectural staffs of corporations, hospitals, developers, colleges and universities and the military. Doing the math, then, in theory each firm had available to them from that graduating class 15% of a person. I’m not sure about most firms but I’ve always felt I needed at least one whole person to get much productivity out of them.

Of course, in reality, the hiring doesn’t work that way. Larger firms with established Intern Development Programs not only get the quality interns from the good schools, they get the quantity too. So when a large firm like Gensler hires twenty people from a graduating class of intern architects, how many does the small firm in the middle of nowhere get? None. And in response, with workloads up, the existing staff works longer hours to get the work out the door and profitability goes down because you’ve got $90,000-a-year Principals xeroxing specs and running blueprints at 1 a.m.

The shortage of talented young architects is only going to get worse. As we work with firms around the country in their recruiting efforts, we keep hearing the term, “talent gap.” At first, I assumed this to mean that applicants don’t have sufficient talent to do the things that need to be done (which some firms have corroborated). Upon further examination, however, it’s not so much that applicants are sufficiently qualified for their age…it’s the fact that there just aren’t enough applicants. Why not?

Many of the most talented architects are pursuing alternate career paths. One architecture-oriented Web site, in its section “Looking Beyond Architecture,” begins this way: “Sometimes interests and experiences lead architects beyond the conventionally defined edges of the profession into other professions and occupations. The aim may be to ‘function as an architect in the [fill the blank] field’ or to shift disciplines more completely. Very often, a shift in career requires additional education or training, new credentials, or professional registration or certification. The bottom line is that the building enterprise is an exceedingly broad field. The possibilities are endless.”

That having been said, the article goes on to lay out those “endless possibilities.” They include landscape architecture, interior design, lighting design, acoustical design, engineering, construction, and urban and regional planning. This list, undoubtedly, was constructed in the 1960s and hasn’t been updated since. The real frontier for architectural talent is elsewhere.

It may come as a surprise but much of the top design talent is migrating to the West Coast and top urban areas. But they’re not going to the list of alternatives previously mentioned, they are going into areas that were non-existent when the Baby Boomers graduated-Web site design firms, entertainment companies such as Lucasfilms, Industrial Light and Magic, Pixar, and DreamWorks are chief draws from the talent well. From the employer side, having gone through the rigors of architectural academia, they are brilliant, highly creative and computer literate-especially when it comes to 3-D modeling, and they are used to working hard. From the young architect side, the salary gap itself can be enormous. One young architect with outstanding skills, was offered $32,000 with a prominent national firm, and $65,000 for an entry-level design position in a well-respected computer animation firm.

But more important than money is the working environment. One member of the Class of ‘99 said, “I talk to some of my friends who joined traditional architectural firms and they’re miserable. No one involves them in the process. They sit at CADD machines 50 hours a week incorporating red line changes into the master documents. Sometimes they help with models, but usually it’s just grunt work. Sure, you’ve gotta pay your dues, but does it have to be dreadful during the process? Here, I’m doing exciting, creative things every day. Sure, I work 16 hour days, but people respect what I do and don’t treat me like a kid. I understand my productivity directly affects the bottom line. We work really hard but we play hard too. My company has a room with video games, a ping-pong table, and the most Legos I’ve ever seen in one place where we can go de-pressurize. How many architectural firms do you do know that provide this?”

But there is another entity that has come to the talent well-the management consulting firms. The Big 6 firms like Andersen Consulting, Ernst & Young, Booz Allen Hamilton, McKinsey, PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the like are, with a shortage of B-School graduates, finding the creative-thinking mentality fostered by top design schools a suitable substitute. According to one representative from Arthur Andersen, “We love these guys-they’re great problem solvers, they listen and communicate well, and they’re quick studies. Much of what we do in the management consulting world is what they call ‘programming’ -asking clients ‘what do you do every day,’ ‘what tools do you need,’ ‘where do you go in the course of a day,’ ‘who do you meet with?’ Understanding these issues helps us make people’s work environment and work process more efficient and ultimately more profitable. Architects are just terrific at this!”

What can traditional architectural practices do to woo the young graduate? “Show us the big picture,” says one respondent. “Help us to understand how what we’re doing fits in. Lay out a plan that shows how we’re going to learn what we need to grow and succeed…and be a little bit more flexible. We’ve met deadlines all on our own for five years without someone standing over us with a whip. Give us some flexibility.” While that is good advice, and certainly doable, how does the firm’s recruiting manager respond to the enormous salary gap between what architectural firms can justify with their billing rates, and those from the entertainment and consulting arenas?

One approach is brutal honesty that parity will just never happen. One young architect learned that the hard way when he earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Architecture at the exact same time his best friend from high school finished his law degree. The architect’s starting salary with a Master’s degree in Washington, D.C.? $34,000. The lawyer’s starting salary as a first-year associate? $110,000. Same grueling schedule. A different perception of value in the marketplace.

The other approach is to sweep the talent up with your vision. People who began their career with the great architects of yesteryear like Eero Saarinen…and of today like Hillier’s Alan Chimacoff, for example, have said that, in so many words, to sit at the feet of the Master was, in a word, “magic.” Only through effectively communicating the personal role that architects can have in enhancing individual well-being through the design of a school, a hospital, or museum (however small the role was) or in shaping the environment for generations to come with the design of monumental civic structure, can architectural firms dim the glitter of this century’s own Gold Rush to the West.