Get up to speed with the architecture market

Written by: Adrian Malleson
Published on: 30 Aug 2019

As a job seeker, why do you need to get up to speed with the architecture market?

The number and types of positions available to architects fluctuate with the economy. For this reason, when job seeking, it is important to pay attention to the architecture market and the wider design and construction industry. After the financial crisis in 2008, for instance, many practices contracted in size, scaling back their staff; architecture was hit again in 2010 when the government pulled the plug on publicly funded projects and practices suddenly found a whole sector of work designing schools and hospitals had fallen away.

With Brexit on the horizon, many individuals have voiced concern about ensuing economic uncertainty and how practices will experience a diminishing pipeline of work and the need to reduce staffing levels. So, what could the possible impact be for you if you are a job seeker? What are the long-term prospects for architects? Even if areas of the market become more difficult, how might you seek out the bright spots? Which skills, level of experience and type of talent are practices continuing to seek out? Which regions and sectors remain the most robust? This is the first introductory article in a series which seeks to unpack and illuminate the architecture market for your benefit as a job seeker.

The long view

UK architecture is a success story. RIBA Chartered Practices bring in over £3.2 billion to the UK economy. Architecture is a significant contributor to the UK’s world-leading creative industries. Together, these are worth some £85 billion. The creative industries are net exporters and globally recognised. Creative roles are among those least likely to be replaced by automation.

The number of architects registered through the Architects Registration Board (ARB) has been increasing steadily over the last few years, and now stands at nearly 40,000. ARB-registered architects are not just UK architects.: around 10% of ARB registrations are overseas; of new ARB registrations, 40% are from the EU. The success of UK architecture, and of London as a world-leading centre of excellence is directly linked to the diversity and internationalism of UK architecture.

The Office for National Statistics’ figures suggests that there has been a rapid growth over the last ten years in the number of workplaces engaged in architectural activities. The architectural practices that make up the profession are varied: more than two thirds of Chartered Practices have fewer than 10 staff; around a quarter have only one or two; just two per cent of Chartered Practices have 100 or more staff, and yet those very large practices account for 38% of the total staff and over 40% of the revenue.

Future Staffing Levels

At the RIBA, we undertake a monthly survey that measures sentiment towards Future Trends within the profession.  This covers attitudes to future workloads which, despite very real concerns about Brexit, remains positive. The surveys also look at future recruitment and whether architects are working at capacity.

The key question that the survey asks in regards to recruitment is: ‘How do you think the number of permanent architectural staff employed in your organisation will change over the next three months?’ Respondees are asked to specify whether numbers will increase, decrease or stay the same. The ‘balance figure’ is the difference between those expecting an increase and those expecting a decrease.

In these uncertain times, architects, on balance, still see future staffing levels increasing.

Future staffing level for architecture graph

Looking at annualised figure we can see that sentiment towards future staffing was hit hard after the great recession of 2009, then recovered to peak in 2015. It has since softened somewhat, nevertheless, the architectural sector remains, on balance, positive for future staffing.

The other side of staff appointment is retention. A company that is working as productively as possible is one where all staff are working at full capacity all the time. On the flip side, if a company has significant levels of underemployment –that is, staff not working at capacity - it suggests that there may be too many staff for the work at hand. That said, many companies seek to retain staff even where there is underemployment. This may, for example, be because of a personal commitment to staff welfare, or because of the high future value of experienced staff (when workloads increase).

architects reporting underemployment graph

The numbers of architects reporting underemployment peaked at over a quarter following the 2009 recession. Mirroring anticipated future staffing levels, underemployed was lowest in 2015 but is now rising, albeit slightly.

Overall, this is good news for the job seeker. It suggests that, in architecture, appointments are often for the long term. It also underscores the importance of employers and employees being the right match for each other at the outset.  This becomes particularly important for both job seekers and employers in a weaker job market where there is less movement and employer and employee can get stuck with each other regardless of fit. To ease the situation, potential applicants need to be particularly alert to areas of pent up demand in the market, where opportunities remain.

Whilst the number of opportunities in architecture can fluctuate, and whilst the areas of growth and stability fluctuate with market changes, the importance of finding the right place to practice remain constant. Architectural employment is often a deep commitment from both employers and employees.

For further pointers, look out for future articles in the series, looking at sectoral performance, different types of practice, regional variance as well as the global picture for those looking to find, or be, a practicing architect.