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SPONSORED FEATURE

Roundtable: The new reality of recruitment

The UK architecture sector is caught up in a skills shortage exacerbated by uncertainty over Brexit. In a candidates’ recruitment market, how should practices respond? Sponsored by Bespoke Careers

The panel 

  • Emily Booth, AJ editor, (chair)
  • Sarah Brown, director, TateHindle
  • Monica Coffey, partner, Stockwool
  • James Cons, managing director, Leslie Jones Architects
  • Lisa Delaney, HR manager, Woods Bagot
  • Gemma Francis, HR manager, KSS Design Group
  • John McRae, partner, Orms
  • Paul Medhurst, regional practice manager, Atkins
  • Leo Pemberton, associate director, Bespoke Careers
  • Mark Rowe, partner, Penoyre & Prasad
  • Lindsay Urquhart, CEO, Bespoke Careers 

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Two months on from the original Brexit deadline, politicians remain locked in negotiations and confusion reigns. But what is no longer in doubt is the impact that the UK’s vote to leave the EU has already had on the architecture profession’s recruitment landscape. 

Data from recruitment agency Bespoke Careers shows that the 2016 referendum has contributed to what it describes as an ‘acute skills shortage’. Its research reveals a whopping 77 per cent increase in vacancies at its London office, compared with the six-month period before the poll.

Unsurprisingly, the number of EU nationals the agency introduced to UK practices in this period is also down by 35 per cent. This drop mirrors figures released last year by the ARB, which showed a 42 per cent drop in EU architects registering with the body, though more recent figures show the numbers are climbing back up.

You’ve got to have an HR plan for every person in the business. Few people want to continue doing just what they are doing 

But it’s not just Brexit that’s biting recruitment prospects. In London, especially, the high cost of living and relatively low salaries on offer are exacerbating the skills shortage. 

In such a candidate-starved market, the days of being able to cherry-pick talent from architecture schools’ final shows seem long gone. Stockwool’s Monica Coffey says she has seen a 50 per cent drop-off in the numbers coming through the door. 

‘We’re getting savvy at keeping hold of people but the reality is that the number of applicants coming through is going to be very difficult,’ she says.

So how should practices be responding to the challenge of hiring staff? And how to handle a new generation of ambitious young architects looking for swift career progression? The AJ assembled a group of leading architects for a roundtable discussion at Bespoke’s HQ in Clerkenwell to discuss the best approaches for candidates and employers. 

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Kicking off with the panel’s observations on the skills shortage, it is clear that most around the table have seen a drop-off in applicants, especially from architects with technical and delivery experience. 

Atkins’ Paul Medhurst says he is seeing more senior staff in the market but also notes that it seemed the ‘better candidates’ are staying in their roles. 

What there is no shortage of, the panel agrees, is ambitious young applicants keen to push ahead in their careers. Leo Pemberton describes an increase in candidates who want to ‘fast-track to associate’, sometimes prematurely.

TateHindle’s Sarah Brown says when it comes to staff with high aspiration, practices have to harness it and have prepared a plan for it. She says: ‘You’ve got to have an HR plan for every person in the business. Very few people want to just continue doing what they are doing.’

If we lose access to the mainland EU job market, we’re going to get wage inflation that will put pressure on fees 

Penoyre & Prasad’s Mark Rowe and Orms’ John McRae both describe a sense that many practices are caught between two generations of architects. Rowe explains that, while he has also seen a growing number of people looking to progress quickly into senior roles, this contrasts with the ‘previous paradigm’, which put too much emphasis on length of experience on candidates’ CVs. ‘Now, if someone’s good, you embrace that and give them all the responsibility they can take and all the support and training they need to push ahead,’ Rowe says, while cautioning that the slow pace of the construction industry and lack of growth in smaller practices can make it hard to keep up with candidates’ demands. 

McRae also speaks of a generational shift within architecture practices, seeing a traditional approach at one end, and a ‘younger, ambitious we-want-to-get-on-with-it culture’ at the other. He predicts a shift in the architect’s role, driven by a younger generation that is more entrepreneurial and whose data, BIM and technology skills will enable them to ‘generate fees more successfully’. 

How to keep hold of EU staff, as well as attract non-UK staff, remains a principal concern of many practices in the wake of the Brexit vote. The panel discusses the challenges of bringing staff over from other countries. Rowe recalls that last year Penoyre & Prasad had tried to bring two Australians to the UK but couldn’t secure visas for them.

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Coffey notes that at Stockwool the headcount has just dipped beneath 50 per cent of non-UK staff, and that this is sad with respect to the practice’s record of ‘richness and diversity’. To address this, Coffey says, the practice is trying to be more proactive, by reviewing its visa process and ensuring all of its EU staff understand the process of settlement. 

Leslie Jones Architects’ James Cons says EU staff still feel threatened by the political rhetoric in the UK, adding: ‘If we lose access to the mainland EU job market, we’re going to get wage inflation that will put pressure on an already-difficult fee environment.’

He says architecture needs to be back leading the debate on the built environment, instead of being further commoditised. ‘If we don’t address that, all the problems in the job market will perpetuate the problem,’ he says.McRae challenges the panel to think about why ‘London-centric practices’ are not responding to Brexit by opening offices in mainland Europe. He says: ‘People in Spain, Greece and Italy are in London for a very good reason: there are no jobs in their home cities. If the profession is that concerned, what’s stopping us doing that?’ 

Bespoke CEO Lindsay Urquhart says she is concerned that, if practices move their offices out of the capital, it would lead to London ‘shrinking’ and becoming more insular. ‘If we get diversity in Madrid, what happens in London?’ she ponders.

Asked by AJ editor Emily Booth to describe what impact the skills shortage was having on salaries, Urquhart says wages are being pushed up, and that across the board salaries were a more important priority for candidates than has been the case in previous years.

I’d rather have someone coming out of architecture school with creative skills and intellectual vigour – that’s like fresh blood into the office 

KSS Design Group’s Gemma Francis says she has particularly noticed salaries are higher for architects with about three years of experience. She says: ‘When you find a good candidate, you want them. Sometimes they are coming in at a higher rate than people in practice at their level, so we’re having to constantly adjust to make sure their [salaries] are fair.’

Rowe points out that there has been a shift towards greater transparency with respect to wages among staff members. He says: ‘Fifteen to 20 years ago, salary was considered private, but nowadays I can have a one-to-one conversation with someone and 10 minutes later everyone knows it.’ This new openness about wages is the new normal, the panel agrees, pointing out that employees are discussing their salaries in a way that never used to happen. As for Part 2 and Part 3 candidates, the panel discusses the change – or lack of change – in what is being taught in architecture schools and how ‘oven-ready’ they want students to be. Woods Bagots’ Lisa Delaney points out that some schools are teaching Revit to make students more employable. ‘Interior designers with Revit skills are like gold dust,’ she says. ‘We can bring them up to speed [on Revit] in three months,’ says Rowe, adding: ‘Personally, I’d rather have someone coming out of architecture school with challenging creative skills and intellectual vigour – that’s like fresh blood into the office.’

The long-hours culture established in architecture schools is still an issue, the panellists agree, observing that it sets students up for unhealthy work culture in practice. Delaney says it is ‘perpetuating the problem’ and Cons says he wishes universities would teach students to ‘work smartly’, instead of working until midnight on projects.

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Pemberton points out that it is up to employers to make clear what the working culture is at interview stage, so they don’t feel they have been ‘mis-sold’. 

Regarding education, Francis says the new architecture apprenticeships, which started last September, are providing a ‘positive’ alternative approach to traditional routes into the profession. ‘It seems the hours are more structured and they [the students] are supported through it,’ she argues.

So, in a candidates’ market, how should job-seekers decide where to apply and how should they seek to impress when they find a role they really want? 

Urquhart says the current recruitment landscape means candidates could spend three months going to see 10-15 practices, but argues that this is not always the best approach. Far better to narrow it down to three practices and tailor applications accordingly, she advises.

As for how to land the job, the panellists have a range of tips, from ensuring portfolios are not ‘dog-eared’ and that they have a life ‘story’ to tell the interviewer to researching the practice thoroughly beforehand. Rowe says he wants job-seekers, especially in senior roles, to ask ‘tough questions’ about the role, as this shows they have thought about the position seriously.

Atkins’ Paul Medhurst says he looks for candidates with ‘blended skillsets’, and a diverse range of experience, while Brown says TateHindle tries to act fast on job applications. ‘We try to be decisive. Good candidates disappear very quickly,’ she says.

The discussion, ranging widely from education to candidates’ expectations, provides an invaluable insight into a shifting recruitment landscape. It’s clear that both job-seekers and employers need to adapt to meet the challenges of the new jobs market.

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Bespoke’s top tips 

Job seekers

  • Decide before you begin your search what’s really important to you. Applying and interviewing with practices you aren’t genuinely interested in is a waste of everyone’s time. 
  • Think long-term. Consider what career development each opportunity will offer you in, say, five years’ time.
  • Be open-minded to younger, ‘up-and-coming’ practices that you might not have heard of. 

Practices hiring

  • Respond quickly to applications, make the interview and offer stage as efficient as possible. Good people get ‘snapped-up’ and delays may mean you miss out. 
  • Bear in mind that it’s a very competitive market and to attract the best talent you need to ‘sell’ opportunities in interviews.
  • Consider who in your practice is best-placed to do interviews; some people are better at it than others.

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Photography by Theodore Philip Wood 

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