The Shadow of the Great Recession
In case you haven't noticed, we’re in uncharted territory from an industry standpoint, and I think there’s just not really anyway any company could have known how crazy things would get. There is no precedent for the amount of 'thriving' in the current economic situation, just as there was no precedent for the amount of doom and chaos in the Great Recession.
Before giving 10 years of my life to my previous job, and before we knew about the Great Recession, I had given 2½ years of my life to a different company. That company had run out of work for me to do after those 2½ years, I got bored, and so I moved on. The company didn’t ask me to leave due to the low workload. They actually said to be patient as the work would come back shortly. However, I was doing a lot of military contracts, was not enjoying the work, and wanted a change. So this was the perfect opportunity to leave and go try something new. I gave notice, took a few weeks’ vacation for the holidays, and visited a friend in New York for New Years. When I started my new job, the Great Recession had already begun, but we didn’t know it yet. Yes, there had been a market crash, yes we were knowingly in a recession, but there was no way in hell anyone truly knew how bad it was going to get from that point on.
The Great Recession left its mark on the architecture industry for years to come. I’d say at least 20 percent of my friends lost their jobs during that period. Most of those friends left the industry, or the U.S., or both, and never came back to architecture. Everyone that graduated in 2007 or later couldn’t even get into the industry to begin with, and they started careers elsewhere. What this did was leave a huge hole in the architecture (and engineering, and construction) work force. Currently, there are many fresh graduates entering architecture because the industry is booming, and there are a strong number of managers with 10 years of experience or more, but the middle ground that handles about 80% of producing the actual work? Missing in action; non-existent.
There is about a ten year gap in the building design and construction work force and no way to fill that gap. So what happens next? Those with the experience are expected to manage projects, manage people, and meet with clients (as typical), all while doing the drafting and coordination work of the production people that don’t exist, and training the beginners to be those production people—yet without the production people to support the beginners and help them grow. The managers become three people rolled into one, while the beginners are left with little to no direction, and feel that they can’t do anything right. With that comes low morale. It’s just not a fair expectation of these beginners and the management level people, nor is it even possible for either to thrive in their roles. The end result is a lot of medium-quality work that is late, or low-quality work that is on time. Not even the client is winning. Company reputations are sliding down the drain. I suspect many people are in the same boat: I just couldn't be proud of my work anymore.
Although it may seem obvious to take on the ‘right amount’ of work and let some projects go to another company, you have to realize the scars of the Great Recession are still fresh. Those who got laid off know that all too well, however we should also sympathize with the managers that made it through that rough period. They are well-aware that any contract can be shelved or cancelled at any time. Being the one to lay people off can be as devastating as being the one getting let go of. You are human. You have feelings, morals and ethics. You know that you are decimating someone’s livelihood when you let them go. You know whether they have children to feed, or if they are the sole breadwinner in their household. You usually know if they are supporting ailing parents or other family members. Not because you are nosy, but because you’re the one fielding their time-off requests and some of the HR paperwork. And heck, you spend most of your waking hours with these people, not your actual real family. You can’t NOT know your employees and co-workers. There is always some degree of personal attachment to them as human beings. And so many companies will take any reasonable contract they can, to make sure they have enough backlog, even if that means overworking employees. And how much backlog is enough? There is no number. Anything is better than under working your employees or having to cut them loose. There is an assumption that more employees can always be hired, should there be too much work.
Let me repeat that: There is an assumption that more employees can always be hired. So what happens when all the appropriate employees are spoken for and there is no one left to hire for the roles you need? This is the current market.
I had ten years to get attached to these people that I worked with. I had sat in the same exact desk, next to most of the same people, for almost 8 of those years. They were great people that I respected. I knew these co-workers’ spouses, and had met their kids. We laughed like family, and sometimes we even argued like family, and got through tough challenges (and deadlines) like a family. And so, although it was my choice to leave, I tried to leave everything so nicely—out of respect for my family. I tried to leave everyone in the best footing that I could, even though they weren’t ready for me to leave, and I know they wish I could have completed more work and got projects farther along than I did. Unfortunately for them, I had to draw a line in the sand or I’d never do what I needed to do for my own mental and physical health. I had given up too much of my personal life for too long. I was burned-out, exhausted and just plain had nothing left to give.
I hadn’t anticipated the negative emotions of those around me when I left. Some people gave me hugs and wished me well, but there was an ominous sense of resentment and bitterness from many people who worked close to me. It caught me off-guard. I was depressed and did nothing for a few days after I turned in my keys. “Did they not even care about me at all?” I thought to myself. I had an expectation that people would be so happy for me to accept new challenges and grow, as that’s how it had been when I had left any previous jobs. A few people were happy for me, but in general, it was not the overall consensus this round. My leaving not only made everyone’s life harder by dumping more work on their already over-burdened shoulders (which took quite a while to not feel guilty about), but I think many people took it personally. It was like I was bailing on the family when the going was tough. I’m not quite sure how to word it, but I get it. In a way, I was being selfish. And selfish or not, I had to take care of myself. If everything went downhill and contracts got shelved or broken, a business is a business, and I'd certainly be cut loose if that’s what the bottom line showed that that’s what management had to do.
I signed my termination paperwork and left. There was no exit interview. No surprise party. No last hurrah. I didn’t even feel like it was really happening. I turned in my keys, and off I went into the next chapter of my life. Do I still feel bad about everyone I left behind? Absolutely. Has my happiness and life-balance increased substantially since I left? Most definitely. As my boyfriend put it, "There is a certain point where you need to stop being a martyr and do what is right for you personally."
Who else is experiencing burn-out, exhaustion, lack of work pride, low morale, outward negativity and co-workers hitting their breaking points and taking it out on each other right now? I believe these are problems that almost all design and construction companies are experiencing at this very moment. It will be very interesting to see how the industry corrects itself going forward. Let me know your thoughts in the comments section.