This past December I was invited to speak at AIAS Forum 2013; the American Institute of Architecture Students national convention. This year the event was held in Chicago… Yes, Chicago in December, and yes, we were snowed-in for days. While we waited for the airports to open, I had the opportunity to speak in length with many of the architecture students in attendance. They asked me many questions, but the one concern they had more than any other was what they should do to land their first job in architecture. I shared my thoughts and told them to watch the blog for a post on the subject. So, here it is… a promise fulfilled. Here is my guide to landing your first job in architecture.
I graduated from Roger Williams University School of Architecture in 1993 and entered the profession during an economic period not unlike the environment we are experiencing today. The nation was slowly recovering from a recession and architects were not eagerly seeking help from intern architects. Throughout the winter before graduating, I wrote over 100 cover letters and mailed them with my standard one-page resume to every architecture firm in the New York metropolitan area. A few weeks later, the postman delivered an equal amount of rejection letters politely announcing the cold hard truth of the profession. There were hundreds of architecture students graduating that spring and they were all competing for the same few positions available in the region.
I did not know any architects. Every summer since my senior year in high school I worked on construction sites, learning the trade up close and studying the psychology of the architect/contractor relationship. I grew up in a family of auto mechanics and tradesmen. I knew well from my carpenter God father that contractors did not appreciate or respect the skills and talents of the architects with whom they worked. There was very clear distain for the professionals involved in his jobs. They were viewed as obstacles rather than team members and I wanted to understand why. I certainly learned what I needed to know during those hot summers in the field, but having no experience in an architecture firm was a major disadvantage as I prepared for graduation.
That first summer was not encouraging. With no available positions, I launched Plan B and started my own business detailing cars. I set up shop at my dad’s gas station and grew the business quickly. The entrepreneur life was great. I had a full schedule, set my own hours and made more money than any other time in my life.
My career as an architect was just going to have to wait.
Discouraged by my lack of success, I searched for a new way to approach these firms. I had plans for my life. I had goals to meet. Each day that I was not working in a firm was a day delaying my goal of becoming a licensed architect by the age of 30. There had to be another way.
More suited for an intern accountant, I ditched the cold, uninteresting resume and created something completely different. Combining the introduction of my cover letter, the list of experience from my resume and reproductions from my portfolio, I developed a new document that read more like a brochure for my personal brand than a desperate plea from a unemployed architecture student. I delivered my new “marketing material” personally to each of the local firms near my home and each time I was stopped at the reception desk and greeted professionally. They accepted my package knowingly and dismissed me politely.
I was not optimistic.
A few weeks later I received a call from the firm of Barry Poskanzer, AIA, Architect and Planner located in Ridgewood, New Jersey. They requested a meeting and later that week, I was working for the firm, measuring the existing conditions of 300+ condominium units recently converted from an abandoned brick masonry textile mill.
It worked. I didn’t know exactly how at the time, but my unique approach landed me the job. When Barry sorted through the dozens of unsolicited requests for employment, my “brochure” stood out among the other identical stark looking documents. Being unique got me noticed in the very noisy world of architecture internship.
Today, graduates of architecture school have it even rougher than us kids of the 90s. We are creeping out of the deepest recession since the Great Depression and firms are still reeling in pain from the past half decade. Seats for internships are few and very far between. Firms’ boards are filling up fast with new projects, but they are slow to hire for any position, hoping to recover from their financial loss. Interns are viewed as liabilities requiring time, attention and training. The few positions available are being filled by experienced professionals who can sit down and get to work with little or no supervision.
What are you students, who are graduating this spring, suppose to do? How will you find a position and start the long journey toward licensure?
My 12 Rules for Landing Your First Job in Architecture
Have no fear. There is hope. You too can be working toward your goals this summer. Follow these 12 rules and you will land your first job in architecture sooner than you may think.
In this very noisy world of instant access and social media, its not easy to get noticed. Architects are being bombarded everyday by emails and telephone calls from people seeking employment. Interns are not only competing with other interns, but experienced professionals desperate to feed their families. “Who you know” still matters, even in this overly connected world. Employers want to work with people who they know, like and trust. The first step in that equation is to be known. Connect with architects online through Facebook and Twitter. Network with professionals at AIA chapter meetings and local events. Be seen and let them know who you are. Share your plans and ask for advice. Build relationships online and in person. Position yourself to be the person they know before the new position even becomes available.
When I created my hand delivered brochure, everyone else was following the steps taught by their guidance counselors and mailing standard resumes to everyone they knew. My package was a Purple Cow. Seth Godin introduced the concept of being remarkable in one of my favorite books. When traveling trough the countryside, there will be farms flanking each side of the road and you will see many fields full of cows. The first cow will be new and exciting. You will push your nose against the glass to get a better view of the massive farm animal. As you travel, you will pass field after field. After miles of seeing more and more cows, you will lose interest and the black and white spotted beasts begin to blend into the bucolic hills beyond. Imagine then, you see a purple cow… a deep, dark purple cow standing among the dozens of normal cows. That would be amazing. Right? You would stomp on the brakes, stop the car, get out to have a second look. You would take pictures, post them on Facebook and send text messages to all your friends. The purple cow would stand out as “remark-able”. You need to be a Purple Cow. Do something that no one else is doing. Be unique in your approach and presentation. Stand out among the hundreds of other students looking for work and be remarkable.
Resumes don’t matter. You won’t be hired because of the piece of paper listing the school you attended or the other firms in which you worked. Architects are receiving hundreds of resumes that look just like yours, and as good as you may look on paper, there’s someone else that looks better. You are an architecture student; a proud member of the “most creative people on earth” club. Prove it. Use your imagination and develop a new approach to getting noticed. Invent a new way to connect with architects. Present yourself in a way that has never been tried. Architects are looking for people who can bring something new and innovative to their firms. Much like applying for architecture school, firms are looking for creativity, so be creative.
Firm leaders are busier than ever. With an increased workload and a decreased staff roster, they are wearing many more hats these days. Their time is limited and their attention is short. Be respectful when contacting firms and understand that any time you are granted is a privilege. Let them know that you appreciate the opportunity to speak and thank them for spending a few minutes of their limited time with you. Polite people, with honed social skills and good manners, stand out among the crowd. This one tip may get your foot in the door when everyone else is trying to knock it down.
People like to be around nice people. Be Nice! Enough said…
Be a Resource
You have knowledge that others want. You have skills and talents that others seek. Share that knowledge with the world by building a blog or website where architects and students can go to learn what you know. To many, an expert is anyone who knows more than they do. By becoming a resource, you become an expert and demand for your services will soon follow.
Trust is one of the most important character traits you can have. Your integrity will speak louder than your resume. Build trust by connecting with professionals on and offline and by becoming a resource. Ask the architects you meet what you can do to help them. Don’t ask for a job or for anything in return. Just simply ask, “What can I do to help you?” Then do what you say you are going to do, when you say you are going to do it. In every position I have had, whether it was swinging a hammer during the summer, making cars sparkle at my dad’s shop, working as an intern and even today, when working for a young family to design them a new home, being a reliable trustworthy person has lead me to success… every time.
Never underestimate the power of working your tail off. Push to learn what you need to know. Position yourself to meet the people you need to meet. Create the materials you need to set yourself apart from others. Hard work does not go unnoticed. If everything else is equal, the one who hustles the most wins.
Respond quickly to requests. You may be one of many who are approached when a position opens up. The early bird gets the worm. Answer calls or emails immediately upon receiving them. Schedule interviews at the convenience of the employer and as soon as possible. Follow directions too. If you are told to submit a letter of introduction with a required word count and a deadline, don’t send double the words a day late and expect to be hired. Architects are looking for people who will do as directed. Show them that you listen carefully and respond appropriately.
When I was offered the job to measure hundreds of condo units in the summer of ’99 (many of which were essentially identical), I jumped at the opportunity. It was certainly not my dream job. I wasn’t going to have much exposure to the firm’s architects and I wasn’t going to work on any interesting architecture. Design wasn’t even involved in the job I was offered. In fact, I wasn’t going to be in the office at all. After searching for a job for months, I took what I could get and I am glad I did. That summer work lead to a full time internship working with Barry directly. I took the job I could get, did the work with enthusiasm and accuracy and landed a job that lead to the rest of my life.
You have done the hard part. You have been through architecture school and met your demons (and your share of unreasonable studio critics). You are prepared and you have done what you need to do. You are qualified and, if you follow my rules, you will be ready. Be confident and have faith that you will succeed. You will land the job you are seeking. Be careful though. There is a fine line between confidence and conceit. No one wants to work with an over-confident know-it-all. Conceit is corrosive. Confidence is captivating.
The profession of architecture is not easy and searching for your first architecture job can be intimidating, overwhelming and at times, depressing. Be brave. You can do it. With these 12 rules, you will be armed with the knowledge you need to succeed. You will be working in no time. You will be the one to land the job.
Architects, please let me know what you think. What advice can you share? What are your rules for landing a job in architecture? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Working interns, please let me know what you think. Have you done something remark-able to get noticed? How did you land your first architecture job? Support your fellow interns and share your thoughts in the comments below. The more we all share, whether we are students, interns or professionals… the stronger the profession will become for all of us. Support and encourage one another and we will all succeed.
Architecture students, here is your chance to connect. Let me know what you think. Have you started your search for work? Where have you found the road blocks to be? What can we, the Entrepreneur Architect community, do for you? How can we help you land your first job in architecture? Please leave a question in the comments below. I wish you all the best in your search for internship.
Go get ‘em.