How to build a strong economy? Architecture jobs

America is slowly getting back to work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today that the number of non-farm related jobs in this country grew by 236,000 in February, and unemployment fell a little to 7.7 percent.

“Regardless of what’s going on in Washington, we’re seeing significant growth in the private sector of the economy. And that really is the big story,” said Bernie Baumohl, chief global economist at the Economic Outlook Group in Princeton. “I think Americans are just generally more confident that this economy is real. That it’s sustainable. That it’s growing. Companies are therefore willing to ramp up employment.”

One of the bright spots is construction. Builders added 48,000 jobs last month.

That’s good news for another one of the professions hardest hit by the recession: architects. At the height of the recession, about 30 percent of all architecture jobs disappeared.

“Our profession is one of the lead indicators for both a downturn and a upswing. It seems like we’re the first ones to start laying off people, and we’re the last one to start hiring people,” said Paul Hanlon, a commercial architect in Minnesota who was out of work for almost four years during the recession.

His luck finally changed last month and his new job could be a good omen for other people looking for work. The Architecture Billings Index, a leading economic indicator of construction activity, has been rising steadily over recent months. It shows the strongest growth seen since November 2007. In particular, residential construction is up. Typically, that means business for commercial architects will improve in the next year.

“We’re a little more encouraged that times are going to get better, moving forward. That we’ve really seen the bottom and we’re starting to claw-out of that now,” said Kermit Baker, chief economist with the American Institute of Architects.

But that light at the end of the tunnel has come too late for some.

“A lot of my friends have actually segued out of the architecture profession,” said Hanlon, the Minnesota architect.

The recession forced many professionals to rethink their chosen career paths.

“They’ve struggled. They’ve tried. They’ve walked the pavement. Mailed the resumes. And they’ve simply given up,” said economist Baumohl.

Instead, Baumohl said many workers from all fields are getting retrained. Folks pack into vocational schools to learn new skills.

“There’s just no room for many of these schools to get new students. It’s quite extraordinary,” said Baumohl. “There’s also a lot of construction going on to build more vocational schools because the demand is just so high.”

Constructing more vocational schools? That means more work for architects.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

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