In the early 1990s, in the wake of the Gulf War and the accompanying spike in energy prices, the economy soured and design firms evicted swaths of junior employees. It was a bad time: between the high tide of employment in July 1990 and the low point in January 1993 the number of architecture jobs dropped 14.6%, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In New York, architecture positions fell 23% between 1990 and 1992.
Many of those young designers left the field for good. They took their training and skills and went elsewhere–construction, real-estate development, teaching. As the first group of graduates trained in computer rendering, they were eligible for big pay jumps in the flush young computer game industry. Over the long run, the design firms probably suffered more than their cast-off staff did. When the economy gained steam a decade later, after the tech crash and 9/11, design firms struggled to find midlevel talent to draft and manage projects. The shortage of experienced hands was one of the factors that led firms to begin outsourcing work to India and Eastern Europe over the last five years or so.
Are we on the brink of another lost generation? Employment at architecture firms peaked a year ago at 224,500. By March it had dropped about 13%, double the rate of lawyers and accountants. The figures don’t reflect the bloodbath at the most high-profile firms. Frank Gehry’s office has collapsed its staff from 250 to 112 over the past year, according to Architectural Record.
Design usually lags behind the rest of the economy, and it has not yet seen any signs of improvement. The AIA’s Architectural Billings Index, one of the profession’s leading indicators, dropped to 37.7 in June, down from 42.9 in May. Even grimmer, the FMI Construction Outlook, foresees a 13% decline in 2010.
Fallback jobs outside of architecture and design may not be so easy to find this time around, in part because opportunities in technology and real-estate are not as plentiful as they were 15 years ago. So what will become of all those young designers fresh from school with ambitions and ideas? They can always wait tables.