To make ends meet Anthony Buccellato has to work not one or two, but three part time jobs. In the mornings he is a teaching assistant at Pratt Institute, a private art college. In the afternoons he is a freelance designer. In between he moonlights as a bartender in Hot Bird, a hipster joint in Clinton Hill, Brookly.
Serving drinks, though, was never Buccellato’s dream. Only a few years ago he was an ambitious architect in a growing international firm. But the crisis hit, and along came the crash in the construction industry.
“They had planned for expansion and when the economy retracted, so did they,” said Buccellato, who found himself without a job in the sector with the biggest number of unemployed people with college education and advanced degrees. “I stuck around for a while. I was kind of a specialist. But eventually they just let me go.”
Fast-forward four years. The great recession is long over and the U.S. economy at last seems ready to regain its lost footing. Construction is in full recovery mode, but architects continue to struggle. Most seem unable to get jobs back in their field, albeit unemployment rates for low-skilled workers in the industry continue to fall.
A study published last year by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and Workforce found that recent college grads who majored in architecture had the highest unemployment rate of any college major, even compared to people with joblessness’s usual suspect degrees, like arts and humanities.
Even moderately experienced architects, 30 years old and over with more than a decade in the field, reported difficulty in finding employment and like their younger colleagues they had the highest unemployment rate.
“The Wall Street crash hurt construction more than any other industry because loose money and artificially inflated values of housing and office buildings,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, a Georgetown University professor and one of the study’s authors. “The result was overbuilding and an artificial bubble in male employment in construction, hurting occupations like architecture and civil engineering most of all.”
Although Carnevale is optimistic that the construction industry will eventually regain its momentum, his forecast for the short term prospects of architects and engineers was rather grim.
“These industries and occupations will recover slowly along with investment markets,” he said.
Indeed, in February the construction sector added 48,000 jobs, according to data by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), and overall is expected to add more than 250,000 in 2013. But only a fraction of them will go to the architects as the industry is mostly focused on residential building.
“It has been a tremendous boom, but this is mostly in residential construction activity,” said Ken Simonson, chief economist at AGC. “Especially in apartment and single family house construction.”
Architects are still needed, but in home building they are not as necessary as the plywood worker or the electrician. And most of the companies in the sector are too small to employ handfuls of aspiring Le Corbusier progenies.
“Home building is dominated by small businesses. Small businesses produce 76 percent of new homes,” said Robert Denk, a senior economist with the National Association of Home Builders. “The recovery is still very slow, although things are getting back to normal since hitting rock bottom in 2007.”
As a result, thousands of architects are employed in non-construction industries – the luckiest doing jobs that have to do with design – paying in the meantime close to job listings, looking for a chance to get back into their chosen profession. Only a few give up entirely hope.
“If you are a worker and you lose your job, you go on and work in other industries. You can become a truck driver. You can go back to school,” said Kermit Baker, chief economist of the American Institute of Architects. “Architects can’t do that because they have made a commitment with their education.”
For someone to become a registered architect there are several different routes. But all take time, pain and large amounts of money in school tuitions. States have set different standards each, but usually an architecture graduate of a four or five-year bachelor’s degree will need three or more years of work as an intern. A student can skip the internship part with a two-year master’s degree if he/she has a bachelor’s in architecture. A three or four-year master’s degree is needed for students with a degree in another field.
“It’s more difficult for architects to walk away. They do something temporarily and wait for the recovery before they come back to the industry,” Baker added.
But for architects long detached from architecture to return after years into construction might not be an option. Especially if they believe that they have lost touch or feel more comfortable with their current jobs. Still, they will always have in the back of their minds the prospect to return to design.
Buccellato recounted how after losing his job during the crash he thought that his part-time gigs would only be short-time fixes, but eventually he grew to enjoy what he does and managed to replace his income.
“I was offered a teaching position, had a lot of freelance opportunity and this helped me re-imagine how I wanted to practice architecture,” he said. “I like this, but I don’t know if that will be true in five years. I certainly don’t see myself remaining a bartender for that long.”