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Spare a thought for architects seeking a job during the lockdown

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Searching for a new job as an architect during a nationwide lockdown is not that fun, reflects Chris Hopkinson

Towards the back end of 2019 I left the small practice I was at because of, let’s say, creative differences. Since then I’ve been searching for a permanent role in a practice that has a strong ethical responsibility; ideally a practice that is environmentally and socially conscious in both the work it accepts and the way it designs.

This is easier said than done at the best of times. So, earlier this year I found myself working as a freelancer at the office of an international architect for several weeks. During this stint I watched internal emails fly around, warning of the dangers of travelling back from China and the need to self-quarantine. But this all seemed very distant at the time – certainly not something of concern to anyone here.

One month after I finished this job, I got a couple of jobs leads which promised to bear fruit. And then coronavirus hit the UK. A scheduled interview was postponed and then cancelled, while other practices said their recruitment has been delayed until Easter, or even summer, or maybe even later.

The virus puts significant stress on those looking for new jobs throughout the country – as well as those not on permanent contracts. It seems probable that workloads will fall as a result of the virus, meaning fewer architecture practices will be hiring and some might even make redundancies, leading to more job seekers. Although conversely, when practices and construction sites return to normal there may be a rush to chase deadlines, and demand for employees could increase.

I’m lucky that I could work on various personal projects in the last month while job hunting, including growing my architecture photography portfolio and making contacts. However, a few jobs that were coming up in the next month or two have also been put off until later in the year.

The virus has come at a bad time for me, though I suspect there’s never an ideal time for a global pandemic for anyone. It’s been challenging looking for roles for months, eking out savings, talking to recruiters, and trying to maintain a positive outlook on the employment front.

I am lucky enough too to have a support network and a family who can lend a hand when times get hard, but it’s always preferable to be standing on your own feet – especially when out of your 20s. With luck, I might find another contract role to tide me over for a few months and perhaps I might be able to secure a permanent position before late summer, but of course, I have no idea what will actually happen.

I’m aware that there are many who are not as lucky as me; for them the only choice is Job Seekers Allowance and Universal Credit. So far, I have been able to choose to avoid the bureaucratic rigmarole of applying for them, attending the weekly updates to prove I’m applying for jobs, and filling in all the necessary paperwork.

It is a privilege to have this choice for a while. Part of the reason for avoiding benefit is in case I find work in a week or two, have to cancel it and possibly repay a portion of it. But there is also the matter of the stigma attached. I’m highly skilled, I’ve got three degrees, and yet I’m used to the idea of ‘unskilled’ labourers at these centres, not the likes of architects, lawyers, bankers, etc. (Although the notion of ‘unskilled’ has come under scrutiny recently as it is these workers who are now ‘key workers’: janitors, supermarket workers, delivery drivers.)

One option I have been forced to consider is working for a developer. Even in normal times, architecture salaries are far too low for the time invested in university and responsibility held within the job. Since starting work in London as a Part 2 in 2014, my salary had increased in real terms by only £3,500. In some of my most recent roles, I was forced to take a pay cut upon starting.

This contrasts sharply with a role working for a developer, which recently came across my desk (dining table), which almost doubles the normal architect’s salary to that of a partner/director in an architects’ practice. While the prospect of a hugely increased salary is appealing, its contradicts the ethical profile of my current ‘dream practice’ (I say this with this one particular developer in mind).

There is still hope. Late last week, I heard about a practice recruiting a contract role, holding interviews remotely, and which plans to start new staff working remotely. This sounds an ideal opportunity until the pandemic is stemmed, and a whole new experience and way of working. It will still mean staying at home daily, but with more structure, purpose, and a means of paying the mounting bills.

When social distancing is a distant memory, hopefully we can remember how quickly we can adapt and work together and consider how we might use that power to elevate the profession.

  • 6 Comments

Readers' comments (6)

  • Bit harsh, but this individual needs to get real, take the hated developer’s money and retrain in a proper profession, such as law or hedge fund management. The only dream practice is the one you create yourself.

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  • I once knew a much lauded UCLA academic who'd emerged from Eastern Europe after WW2, eventually emigrated to the United States in 1955 but despite her academic qualifications she'd had to drive buses for a while.
    Not a unique story, but instructive to me and at this time God knows there are places desperate for temporary workers from fruit and vegetable growers to supermarkets and the Nightingale Hospital.

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  • You have my sympathies Chris and I hope things will turn out OK for you.
    That said, I think we are in for a sea change and to that end flexibility may be the best resort. It may be that the construction and design industries will be affected almost as much as the travel/transportation sector.
    Working and studying at home is likely the future for those who are able to do so. It may be the death knell of office buildings; student housing - even schools and universities themselves. To survive during such turmoil will be a challenge for most.
    I do wish you all good fortune. Stay strong!

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  • He probably knows Paul Finch, the doyen of the Left Wing, Left Bank, the Left Behind, and Last Week’s opinion!

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  • This article is pretentious and naive, qualities you should not be showcasing if you are serious about finding a job in construction. Downturns are common within the construction industry and at these times you have to make a choice, stay in the industry and do what you can, or move to a different sector, develop new skills and return when the economy improves. During these transitional periods a proportion of Architects will have to claim benefits and as a professional group of well educated individuals we should be supportive not judgmental of those who claim benefits to ensure their families have a roof over their heads and food on the table.

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  • Spared a thought and regretted it. This is a time of great need for many, so true ethical practice is surely needed now more than ever.

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