Prospects brighten for architecture profession

Like real estate developers and contractors, architectural firms suffered during the Great Recession and have fared better in recent years as the economy has improved and building projects have picked up.

There are signs of even better days to come for architects, but challenges remain.

Robert Greenstreet, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning, said that when you start to see big projects moving forward – like the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. office tower and the proposed 44-story Couture apartment and hotel development – that’s when things start to get exciting for architecture.

Greenstreet

“When you look out and you see cranes on the skyline, that’s when you know you’re in the peak,” he said. “We’re a ways from it – still probably a couple years – but the planning is going on now, which is great.”

The general prognosis for architecture jobs, Greenstreet said, is a positive one.

“We look at the national statistics, and two that have kept us going in the past few years,” he said. “One is a 2004 Brookings Institute report which talks about the long-term future of construction needs. Basically, it ignores economics; it just focuses on demographics. Their conclusion was that the level of infrastructure we will need in the 2030s for the American population to live, work and play, only 50 percent of it currently exists. Their notion is that there’s going to be a vast amount of building that’s going to be necessary in the next 20 years. A lot of that is in the south, but there are certainly a lot of major implications for the Midwest. The more immediate one was produced by the Department of Labor, which has listed architecture as a growth profession. Their estimate says the profession will grow by 24.5 percent by 2020. That equates to about 28,000 jobs.”

Lyssa Olker, senior associate at HGA Architects and Engineers and president of the board of directors of the Milwaukee chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said that while the profession has seen numerous challenges over the past several years, the outlook going forward is optimistic, as a growing population creates a need for new buildings.

Olker

“There’s going to be more building in the next 20 years than we have had in the last 50 because of the pace of acceleration in the built environment,” she said.

The challenges faced by architects during the recession were significant, Olker said. Wages were cut, mean salary dropped and an estimated 25,000 of the total 100,000 architecture jobs in the country were lost.

“It’s a steep climb to get out of that hole,” she said.

Olker said there’s a “spiral effect” for the architecture job market and its impact on the broader job market.

“It’s not right to talk about architecture just as architecture jobs,” she said. “Design and construction projects bring along architecture (and vice versa).”

“When construction kicks in again, because it’s such a massive industry, architects are sought after,” Greenstreet said.

There’s still a great deal of uncertainty and unpredictability in the job market, Olker said, but while some markets are lagging, the Milwaukee architecture market is “ramping up pretty well.”

Greenstreet said one immediate test of how well things are progressing is how many students are hired, which has improved, but is still not at peak levels.

“There seems to be a lot of activity for entry level students to find work,” he said. “Chicago has been a very healthy market and the southeastern Wisconsin market has picked up very nicely in the last two years.”

Students are finding jobs more quickly in the past two years than they did during the height of the recession, he said.

“From the 2012 graduating class, we placed 84 percent of graduates within four months of graduation,” he said. “In 2013, we placed 83 percent of graduates within four months of graduation, and that rose to 90 percent within four-and-a-half months.”

Students and younger architects have faced less of a challenge in the architecture job market than others, Olker said.

“The challenge is less for students, more for the unemployed,” she said. “If you’re out of work for a year, it’s more difficult to keep up with trends than it would be for students. There are technology challenges for those who step out of the workforce for one reason or another.”

Greenstreet said the younger generation of architects is “instantly useful” because they are “hard-wired to technology.”

“It was the older generation that really got hit,” he said. “I don’t worry about the younger generation. They’re incredibly valuable and affordable.”

He said the Great Recession differs from others as the skillset of different generations has impacted those who retain jobs.

“This is the third recession I’ve been through since I’ve been at the school,” Greenstreet said. “This is the biggie, obviously. In the past, it was the younger architects that suffered. This time around, it’s the 50-plus (age group). A lot of senior architects lost their jobs and they’ve had a hard time getting back.”

While the prospects for younger architects are promising, Greenstreet said, what’s missing is an influx of new students in the university program.

“Our biggest challenge here is getting high school students to think about architecture as a profession,” he said. “That’s a national problem. Right now, there are 80 percent of students in architecture schools than there were 10 years ago. There are fewer architecture students, which means there will be fewer architecture graduates. That’s something to do with a demographic dip, but I think it’s also that they aren’t teaching tech drawing and art in high schools as much as they did. I don’t think that people know that we, as a profession, are a very healthy one and a growth one. There will be jobs for our graduates.”

Greenstreet said there’s a potential shortage of architects on the horizon.

“For the first time – and I’ve been here 30-odd years – we’ve gone back into the high schools in a concerted effort to let people know about architecture as a profession,” he said.

Olker said university enrollment has dropped “dramatically,” with an 8 percent decrease since 2008.

Big building projects that are in the works, Greenstreet said, could ultimately fuel interest in the program.

The architecture program at UWM – the only school of its kind in the state – is a “minimum seven year path” to becoming an architect, Greenstreet said.

And architecture graduates have very transferrable skills, he said, with some UWM graduates working in the film industry and at Disney as “imagineers.”

Olker said a big trend in architecture is the changing scope of what architects do. Architects don’t just build buildings, she said, but things like roadways, transit and other parts of the built environment.

Sustainability is another big trend in architecture.

“One of the things about the future of architecture is how we’re getting into process, efficiency, lean design and how people are using their space,” she said.

Olker’s most recent project in the Milwaukee area was RadioMilwaukee’s new sustainability-conscious building in Walker’s Point.

“Sustainability is becoming mainstream,” she said. “It’s become the expected norm and that’s because of green aspects of a building and how that reflects the bottom line. Clients are starting to get smart and know buildings use a lot of energy. The little extra they’re paying to have a sustainable building has a return on investment in the five to seven year range.”

Another trend in Milwaukee, Greenstreet said, is the growing number of smaller, more boutique firms – such as Rinka Chung, Johnsen Schmaling, La Dallman, and others – that have emerged in the last 10 to 15 years.

“They’re small, nimble firms and they’re doing really high-end work,” he said. “They co-exist very nicely with the bigger firms because they’re working typically on smaller scale projects, although they’re beginning to team up with big firms.”

Greenstreet said many of the architects, both at these boutique firms and at many of the larger architecture firms in the area, are graduates of his program at UWM.

“Our students like to stay here,” he said. “Seventy-five to 80 percent of our students are in Wisconsin and northern Illinois. They like it here, and the profession absorbs them. We’ve got graduates in every state and 35 countries, but most of them like to be around here.”

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