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Land Matters: Looking Up

For most of the past several years, there has not been much to say on the employment front for landscape architects, or for the design and construction industry in general, except that nobody was hiring. And that’s a very short story to tell. But by mid-February, there were definite signs of a steady upward trend in the hiring of landscape architects. Of course, this sort of thing must be said somewhat warily, so as not to jinx or overstate it, but designers themselves offer the proof.

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In the first week of February, there were 80 jobs listed on ASLA’s JobLink site; 61 of them were placed in January (most are listings that stay up for 30 days). The last time listings ran this high was 2008; there were about 90 ads placed in both January and February of that year. And we all know what happened over the following several months as the housing market nearly brought down the entire financial system. In January of 2009, there were 14 ads placed; the January number stayed in that range through January 2013, when there were 22 ads.

The jobs listed recently have been diverse. A few public agencies are hiring, and so are design/build firms, landscape contracting companies, small design offices, and global multidisciplinary firms. The destination is no longer just China or bust; there are firms all over the country looking for new people.

I called some of them to see what, indeed, is up. There was no one answer, which is a good sign. Jody Oates, the principal of Kaleidoscope Inc., near Columbus, Ohio, is looking for a licensed landscape architect to design summer camps and retreats, the firm’s specialty. “We are seeing an uptick in business, and significantly in the planning work we do,” Oates says. He credits the investment economy. Many of his clients are nonprofits seeing their institutional earnings grow with the stock market, which rose by around 30 percent in 2013, the largest gain since 1997, and they have years-long backlogs of work. Oates had about 30 applicants in two weeks. “Folks who are employed, too,” he said. “There’s a bit of movement.”

That means existing positions need to be refilled. Daryl McCann has two people leaving a nine-person design team at McDugald-Steele in Houston, a residential design/build firm, where he is the design director. The departing employees are leaving for more senior jobs. “My whole focus here is hiring people at the lower level and moving people up who’ve been sitting in the same position from two to seven years, and start building that base back,” McCann says. That kind of news is welcome to anyone who’s just been starting out in the past six years.

“Last year was the first year that work was steady throughout the year,” said Alison Chambers, the director of operations at Vita Planning and Landscape Architecture in San Rafael, California. “The past few years, the first quarter has been very slow,” Chambers said. “January this year was busy.” The firm designs golf courses. During the recession, things slowed here but picked up in China, which is where Vita found work. There are 12 people in the office now, down from about 30 during the boom, and Chambers is looking for two or three more.

Joe Sporko, ASLA, the managing principal of the LA Group in Saratoga Springs, New York, said a lot more people were looking for work six months ago when he’d listed a position. Now he’s seeking an experienced landscape architect who knows construction documents, but that person is harder to find. The firm slowed but did not stall during the recession; it’s stayed at plus or minus 40 people. Last January was a terrible January, Sporko says. “This year, we had a great January.”

The recovery that analysts kept talking about has taken a long time to reach landscape architects. A lot of experienced designers lost their jobs, and younger people hoping to start their careers had good reason to feel locked out. But now the economy seems to be firming up in more ways than one. The stock market mostly keeps chugging (knock wood). The housing market is growing frisky again. Many states are looking at budget surpluses. The recession left a huge amount of damage to work through, but the signs of improvement that some principals began talking about a year or so ago now appear more than just hopeful—they could even be called real.

Bradford McKee
Editor
Landscape Architecture Magazine

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