During the early days of the pandemic (2020 Q2/Q3), the architectural field – notorious for cyclical boom and bust – was surprisingly left unscathed. While there were layoffs, it was not widespread. The industry quickly adopted work-from-home strategies, and a semblance of stability set in. For those who kept their jobs, priorities changed; health came first, ambition was shelved, and few changed jobs. It was a fragile time where anxiety reigned, and stability was paramount. All was quiet on the hiring front.

Almost immediately the government quickly in to shore up the economy. The Federal stimulus encouraged employers to maintain staff levels, and by Q4 2020, national unemployment had dropped back to a reasonable level. The Fed had done its job; however, the trillions of dollars of liquidity now flowing through households and businesses would have some unintended effects. 

By 2021, it did not take long for the pace of business and the economy to heat up. Employers, encouraged by the new-found prospects, began to hire again. “Pent-up demand” became an oft-used phrase—pent-up demand for air travel, hotels, consumer experiences. It could also have been used to describe the job market. The first year of the pandemic offered much time for self-reflection, and now it was as if the whole of America was experiencing an existential crisis of employment. People wanted change. 

But what was everyone looking for?  In the confusion of the moment, everyone seemed to have conflicting agendas. People wanted more personal fulfilment and altruistic project work – but they also needed to be assured they were making more than their peers. People sought rapid professional growth – but only if they could be assured of work/life balance. Nothing appeared to fit neatly in a box. Suddenly it was reasonable to juxtapose income and promotion with less commitment and more time off. More often than not, it came down to money. Needless to say – when the focus shifts to the bottom line, it’s never a good thing for the design industry. It can confuse the aims of even the best and brightest. 

Architecture vs. Expectations

Architecture is an incredible profession. Architects make real, tangible, lasting contributions to the world that few professions can claim. It is a true labor of love. Being an architect is not just a job; it is an identity.

It can also be thankless. A rigorous profession that demands long hours. An industry that embraces technology yet struggles to change. As much as the culture tries to move forward, it can still be prone to stuffy academia, politics, low wages, and endless waiting for your chance. 

Nothing could be further out of step with what young people want of their futures—whether four years ago or today. They attend some of the finest universities in the country, to watch their peers enter tech and finance, and quickly outpace Architects financial outcomes. 

How could they not be apoplectic? They’ve grown up on social media, scrutinizing themselves against other people’s vacation photos. Born halfway down the rabbit hole of non-stop messaging, gnawing at their insecurities, inundated by an unhealthy value system of reckless consumerism promoted by celebrities. Should we be surprised they are second guessing their career choice? 

However, beyond the inherent FOMO of the day – there’s also a growing philosophical rift between the profession and new generations of talent. They’ve grown up in an era of digital expanse, watching the technology in their lives grow exponentially. They use cutting-edge software for design, but the field they endeavor in does not mirror the progress they’re accustomed to. Architecture is a business that requires extreme patience. Progress is linear. Change comes at a glacial pace. There are no shortcuts. Architecture is the antithesis of the digital world they inhabit. 

Surging Demand Meets Scarcity, Making for Labor Market Confusion

Surging job openings emboldened workers in 2021–2022. Sensing their leverage, employees jumped at making moves and were quickly rewarded. Talent scarcity was real. No one could tell exactly why, but it was clear the field had dramatically changed. 

In retrospect, we can see there were several factors at play. The international talent pool was depleted. Travel restrictions, immigration policies and surging housing costs slowed incoming international talent to a drip. Junior Designers were largely absent from major cities. With New York City establishing itself as the pandemic epicenter, few recent grads were encouraged to apply. There was a flight from urban centers. Millennials started families and raced for the suburbs and further afield. The skyrocketing housing market allowed for entrepreneurism to flourish, encouraging talent to hang their own shingle. But what also cannot be understated, is that more than other time – talent simply left the field all together and pursued other careers. 

The recurring theme of higher wages and better “work/life” balance stayed at the forefront. Talent scarcity pushed employers, flush with stimulus capital, to acquiesce – wages, terms and conditions (all representing increased operating expense), began to precipitously rise across the board. 

Ramifications of the Surging Job Market

A cultural sea change was afoot, and the workers had the momentum. The chasm between employees and employers grew. Unionization efforts came and went. Debates on hybrid work, return to work, and flexibility. Would we ever need an office again? There was literally a “movement” called “quiet quitting” and the equally dubious “bare minimum Mondays.” A general air of mistrust hung in the air.

Hubris, entitlement, and impatience abounded. Endless interviews. Threats of leaving. Offers, counteroffers, “Where’s my due?”. Employee attitudes based on reams of anecdotal information that flooded inboxes and social media feeds, telling them they were undervalued. Who needs facts when you have TikTok? 

Today’s Job Market and Where it Fits in the Ebb and Flow

Looking back, amidst the relative calm of today, it’s almost hard to remember exactly how heated things became. There was chum in the water, panic ensued, and seemingly everyone wanted to get in on re-negotiating their future. It was extremely stressful – for both employers and employees. But where does it leave us today? Do we really believe the wild gyrations of the employment market in the pandemic era are completely behind us? There are still lingering unresolved issues, and new ones yet to come. 

Has the gap between employee and employer, shrunk or grown? Does the WFH/RTO work culture debate remain a contentious issue? Is there a growing skills gap due to the fractured learning experience from remote work? Is compensation in a fair and balanced place across skills and experiences in the market? If the frenetic market of ’21 & ’22 was replaced by an anemic ’23 & ’24, what does that portend for the future?  Will pragmatism win out, and we see a reversion to the pre-pandemic norms in the business? Or will any spike in work cause another spasm of activity and movement in the field? How will the affect your business? 

There are a lot of questions. The picture is evolving daily. We all have strategic aims and cannot remain complacent – subject to the will of market ebbs and flows. We want to be out front, hanging ten, riding the next wave right into shore. We may not be able to control the market, but we can control how we react to it.  Let’s keep the conversation going.