Recruiters report first signs of green shoots – as interviews held in parks and on bikes

Architectural job vacancies fell off a cliff in March and April, with specialist recruiters reporting drops of up to 80% in two weeks.

Practices of all sizes instituted recruitment freezes when the pandemic hit Britain in March – before 70% took advantage of the job retention scheme the following month.

In the last fortnight confidence has begun to rally with some practices looking to hire, they said. Interviews have taken place in parks and even while cycling across London to minimise risk of infection.

The agencies are reporting small signs of “green shoots” and are predicting the recovery will be “tick-shaped” – slower than a V-shaped return but much better than the gloomiest L-shaped forecasts.

Martin Bennell

Martin Bennell, managing director of Frame Recruitment

“In March and April, while our clients were focused on establishing remote working, recruitment fell off a cliff. Our vacancy numbers dropped by 78% in two weeks,” said Martin Bennell, managing director of Frame Recruitment, who said he had experienced nothing like it in 20 years.

Both vacancies and interviews dropped off rapidly from March 16, the day Boris Johnson announced the over-70s would have to self-isolate.

The last two weeks of May were the busiest since the beginning of March, he said, but that still only amounted to a “handful” of new instructions so far.

“The green shoots have started appearing since May 4, with ‘new vacancies’ and ‘interviews arranged’ both moving in a positive direction,” he said. “Hopefully by the end of June we’ll be seeing busier times.”

Jill Showell, managing director of Bespoke Careers, which reported an 80% downturn at the start of the crisis, said they had seen a “notable upturn in clients’ confidence” in the last two weeks.

Indications from their offices in Los Angeles, New York, Sydney and Melbourne were encouraging, she said, adding: “They have now returned to work and hiring has resumed which we see as a positive. We hope that the London market will quickly follow suit.

“There are some incredible designers in the market and this is a great opportunity for practices to hire talent that they normally may not be exposed to.”

Bennell described these as “unicorn candidates”. Some interior designers and architects with Revit skills were especially highly sought-after.

Practices in the pandemic fell into three broad categories, he said, with 10% unaffected and still looking to make “strategic hires” because they work abroad or in resilient sectors such as high-end residential or healthcare.

Sixty percent of architects were in what he called the “rolling up sleeves” camp, with directors getting stuck in making clients calls and doing business development. At these practices spending, hiring and firing were all on hold while they took advantage of government support schemes to delay big decisions on whether to make redundancies.

The final third of practices – principally those in the hospitality, tourism and leisure sectors – were working at “close to zero”, said Bennell. They had made redundancies and probably placed the rest of their staff on furlough. He called this the “hope and pray” approach.

Jill Showell Bespoke photo - recruitment

Jill Showell, managing director of Bespoke Careers

Showell said “only time will tell” whether there would be a wider wave of redundancies when the furlough scheme was wound up in the autumn.

At least one major practice Building Design has spoken to said it was under-resourced for the amount of work it has on, while others are in the opposite position and are considering furloughing further staff while they can. The cut-off is June 30.

The difficulty of recruiting good staff means firms are reluctant to let people go if an uptick in work is round the corner, one explained. Instead surplus staff are being redeployed on competition entries and bids. But whether practices will be able to sustain that once the furlough safety net is taken away will largely depend on the state of the market at the end of the summer.

“Most projects are on hold, not cancelled, so there’s plenty of positivity for when works starts again,” said Bennell. “We are beginning to hear positive things about project wins.”

As recruitment picks up, he predicted a return to three- and six-month rolling contracts which were a feature of the 2009 recession, with practices not wanting to commit to permanent contracts.

Last week he also warned practices will be under growing pressure to be very competitive on fees which could also impact on salaries. “We’ve heard of people offering 20% discounts to win work,” he said.

Another trend that appeared to be emerging was a reluctance to commute into London, with candidates asking whether they could work remotely permanently, especially those with families far from the capital.

“Location could become less of a barrier to recruitment. Employers need to decide whether to hire on that basis,” said Bennell. “A work-life balance has suddenly become a much hotter topic.”