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The postgraduation career conundrum: Experience required

The future once seemed so bright for college graduates riding the high of accomplishment, but now, months after graduation, the hard work goes unnoticed, obscured under piles of competing resumes, tailored cover letters and shiny portfolios. It is apparent that the current job market has not been conducive to landing a dream job, if any job at all. Besides the obvious financial pitfalls of being underemployed, it is particularly problematic that the architectural profession is inherently empirical, and recent grads risk missing out on valuable work experience.

The lack of conventional jobs available today for architecture graduates may result in a lack of competitive, confident architects in the coming years, as they meander down other avenues. Conversely, the economic atmosphere presents some of the best opportunities for ambitious, forward-thinking grads to excel. The architecture graduate must be ready to adapt to the new conditions of today’s professional environment to subsist.

The temptation to take a job in a field unrelated to your degree in order to survive is intense—especially in the face of exorbitant loan repayments and living expenses. The danger is that these alternative pathways potentially lead the unsuspecting grad away from the practice and into the tedium of a regular paycheck in a less satisfying line of work. During the past year, firms have downsized, merged or disappeared altogether. Experience in building information modeling software and drafting expertise has made all the difference between being hired or being fired. Grads are feeling the pressure to become proficient in emerging technologies and realize that their marketability suffers with each day they work outside an architectural setting.

This frustration has driven some graduates to move outside the region in search of work. Suddenly places you’d never dreamed of living seem more enticing. These changes of locale, whether for work or lower living expenses, further diminish the availability of eager entry-level position fillers. Graduates who have remained in the area have begun careers in construction and in web and graphic design, and even at home-improvement centers. Although these jobs may be architecturally related, they further deplete the talent pool. Other graduates have returned to school in hopes this slump will pass. Still others have started their own businesses in real-estate development and similar endeavors.

Employers look for architects with broad experience in design development, construction documents and administration. Those job seekers still fervently pursuing architecture careers must compete with those who have been continually employed and advancing their career development. In a few months, these same job seekers will face a new wave of competition as a fresh stream of graduates eager to showcase their know-how in the latest and greatest in drafting and modeling appears on the scene.

Fear not! There is still hope for those of you who seek experience and are resourceful. One must approach the job market as creatively as possible. Freelancing as a contract employee may prove to be a viable option. As vast and daunting as the Internet job search is, opportunities to hone your skills during small stints, lasting a few weeks to several months, are out there. Area grads have also found that volunteering for architecturally related ventures such as disaster relief, Habitat for Humanity and neighborhood redevelopment, although usually for free, provide a supplement to a dismal resume or fear of obsolescence. You are not only participating in your field but also experiencing the satisfaction that comes from helping others. These options will allow you to work on different projects, sometimes for multiple firms and clients, and offer very important networking opportunities. Never underestimate the power of the professional reference, and let your reputation precede you.

Once, you dreamed of freelancing your way to financial freedom only to find the life of the starving artist is not what it’s cracked up to be and bartending pays the bills. Now, you see the arduous, but ultimately fulfilling, road ahead. Ours is the generation of professional reinvention. Despite the frustration that comes with each rejection, we must think of the long run—what time is better than now, during this economic recession, to learn techniques we’d otherwise never have time for? Take the chance to specialize in an area that has the ability to enhance the architectural practice or to become certified in areas that can only expand your expertise. It may not be what we expected when we signed up for courses our freshman year, but here we are, a generation that has determined that if it’s not challenging, it’s not worth doing, and thus must generate our own experience.

Jennifer Sutherby is a 2010 MArch graduate of Wentworth Institute of Technology and construction administration assistant at NBBJ. A lifelong resident of Ipswich, she’s an aspiring writer in her free time.

Photograph by Andrew Whitis. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.