What We’re Seeing – 2019

As we talk with firms across the country, we are often asked, “What are you seeing out there?”   We thought our response to this question would be of interest to a broader group. So, in 2017, we began sharing our thoughts through periodic editions of “WHAT WE’RE SEEING”.


In 2018 – as well as in 2019 so far, we are seeing caution and contradiction in the realm of recruiting for the built environment. Fairly robust demand for design services continues in most sectors and in most parts of the country according to AIA’s Architectural Billing Index: yet the search process seemed paradoxically protracted.


Despite stable national economic indicators, political and social turmoil have created polarization at all levels.  Instead of optimism, we’re seeing caution. Industry-specific factors also contributed to a different recruiting environment than we have seen previously:


  • Among firms concerned with the built environment, there is a real labor shortage. The construction industry has lost 600,000 jobs since 2008, and 79% of construction companies say they need to hire more employees in 2019.  The impact on the practice of architecture has often created an overworked, frustrated staff.
  • Heavy workloads compromised the ability to act quickly on the part of both candidates and hiring firms.
  • Ever-escalating cost of construction prompted a growing sense of urgency on the part of clients anxious to keep project costs down
  • Many design firm clients are worried about an inevitable correction, and anxious to take advantage of current demand for their products and services: impatience characterizes the business environment today.

Despite a slowdown in the recruiting process, we have seen some very positive trends as well. Below, we discuss four themes that seemed to result from this convergence of national and industry factors.

Breuer Consulting Group



Longer average time-to-placement

The time between identifying a potential candidate and the conclusion of a search has more than doubled in the past few years.


Both hiring firms and candidates were slower to respond than we have seen in the past. From the candidate’s point of view, a slow process raises a red flag about a hiring firm’s decision-making process. A slower process also allows competing priorities to intervene … such as alternative job prospects or new developments in a candidate’s existing firm. From the hiring firm’s point of view, a slow response from candidates can seem to indicate lack of interest or energy, but may, in reality, be a function of work overload. In our experience, responsibility for delay is about equally divided between candidates and hiring firms.


Delay introduces risk into the search process for both parties. Both candidates and hiring firms need to understand how delay is perceived by the other and not make assumptions.  As with many other situations, simply communicating throughout the process puts speculation to rest.  In any case, a protracted search is in no one’s interest.  Some delay is unavoidable.  So control what you can:  a careful mix of streamlined processes and patience on both sides  may prevent searches that don’t end well.



Coming to terms with the candidate shortage

We exist in an environment of acute labor shortage in the AE community. Firms need to change their recruiting behavior to adapt to the new normal.


In the words of one of our clients, “you need to recognize what the actual candidate pool is and abandon the search for a unicorn.”  This is not about lowering standards; it is being realistic.  Time-worn practices may not be in a firm’s best interests.  Perhaps it makes sense to hire two people instead of insisting that one person must be able to do it all.  Maybe relaxing the required number of years of experience works for exceptional candidates. For non-design professionals (marketing, finance, HR, IT), a strong performer from outside the industry may offer a new perspective to design firms. Firm leaders’ unwillingness to modify traditional behavior … for example:  insisting that a candidate relocates … may not serve firms well … even though a first impulse may be to resist an unorthodox solution

Tailored candidate pursuit strategies

Hiring firms always see their position as “a great opportunity”.   Opportunities are not generic:  what may be attractive to one person may be boring to another … even though the candidates may be equally qualified.  Understanding candidates’ motivations and mindsets and responding with offers that reflect empathy as well as interest has enabled several firms to attract great candidates who have unique situations.


Today, potential candidates are understandably concerned about making a move at a time when strong economic conditions could change and the political and social milieu is unstable. In this environment, some firms recognized that it takes a bespoke strategy to address any hesitation on the part of individual candidates.


Here are some actual examples of firms which adjusted their traditional behavior to attract people they may have previously felt were out of reach by paying attention to the needs of individual candidates. They recognized some important realities:


  • Marketing and recruiting require similar skills: The marketing staff of one firm was enlisted to prepare compelling recruiting materials ranging from position descriptions to well-illustrated mini-presentations on the firm’s culture and staff which emphasized specific items of interest to specific candidates.
  • Individual candidates have varying timelines: A firm which was initially disappointed to the point of potentially rejecting their preferred candidate, adjusted their thinking about start date to and found a work-around to accommodate the candidate’s need to address personal issues … even though the change caused significant adjustments to their intended start date.
  • Compensation comes in many forms: A firm created a never-before provision for a weekday apartment as part of an offer to a candidate who was willing to commute on weekends to a family who could not relocate. This simple solution wouldn’t work for everyone but in this situation created a happy long-term employee.
  • Initial thoughts about a position may not be the best thoughts: One multi-office firm was willing to rethink the traditional location of its Finance staff and selected another office to accommodate the location requirements of a great Finance Director candidate.

More strategic thinking

Perhaps it is coincidence, but we are seeing many of our clients beginning to think differently about traditional positions … building-in or emphasizing strategic thinking as a crucial requirement. 

To these firms, it seemed that traditional responsibilities of various critical leadership positions were not enough to keep firms sharp and distinctive.  One firm concerned about its project pipeline refocused its thinking midway through the search for a Business Development Leader.  Thinking about the real problem (not enough executive-level expertise in charting a course of growth for the firm) resulted in creating the position of “Director of Strategy and Growth”.   A seasoned executive was hired with broader responsibilities, working directly with the CEO on a range of initiatives beyond the acquisition of new business … including organizational structure, M&A, expanded services, new locations, strategic relationships and the serious use social media and PR.  The need for the traditional Business Developer did not go away:  a search to execute the growth strategy is underway.


A prominent healthcare design firm created a position that builds on the skills of a traditional healthcare planner but has a much broader purview. This elevated position has enabled the firm to offer senior-level advisory services with a team member who could work both internally and externally as a strategy consultant.  The goal was to inform design decisions to help their clients address the ever-evolving demands of healthcare delivery while boosting the firm’s reputation as source for solutions to difficult facility challenges.

Is it a coincidence that multiple firms are simultaneously changing what they expect from their new leaders?  We feel that this trend may be a response to the converging factors that have complicated the talent acquisition process … a recognition of two realities:


  • Positions are attractive to a new kind of candidate whose broad-based experience and knowledge can be leveraged to create something fresh and distinctive
  • Firms are subject to pressures they have never faced before and they simply require bigger thinkers to anticipate and react to change.



Our practice focuses on the needs, challenges, and idiosyncrasies specific to organizations that are passionate about design for the built environment. We work with some of the best design firms in the country to find professionals to lead design, market sectors, offices, finance and many other critical functions of forward-thinking practices.  You can connect with Breuer Consulting Group @ info@breuerconsulting.com

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