Getting hired during COVID-19: Tips for new grads and emerging professionals

Published: August 5, 2020 | Updated: August 7, 2020

Miss our latest jobs webinar? We’ve got you covered.

“Getting Hired During COVID-19: Tips for New Grads and Emerging Professionals” breaks down the current job market from every angle.

Our panel of three seasoned firm leaders, plus one newly hired emerging professional, shares practical advice from both sides of the hiring process. Check out the highlights of our latest wide-ranging conversation (and catch up with the key takeaways from our previous webinar, Tips to Build Career Resilience.)

The panelists:

Nathanial Clark, AIA, Managing Partner, Chasm Architecture

Nicole Washburn, AIA, Principal, JLG Architects

Jonathon Jacobs, Assoc. AIA,Project Designer, DJR Architects

Timothy Hawk, FAIA, (moderator) Managing partner, WSA Studio

Business Continuity

There’s a direct connection between a firm’s ability to maintain its workload during the pandemic crisis and its capacity to hire. What are firms doing to overcome current challenges, and what does that mean for your job search?

Think outside the box: During the 2007 recession “when everyone was laying off marketing staff,” Clark recalls, he stepped up his firm’s efforts to build its brand far and wide – even to potential clients with minimal resources. Why? “To put my firm in a position where we are in front of clients and winning work or creating projects they don’t know they can fund.” The same approach is succeeding now. By negotiating and working with clients to assemble funding for public, private, and public/private projects, Clark says his firm “anticipates growing exponentially while other firms may be shrinking.”

Be versatile: Washburn’s firm takes a similar approach, related to its founding vision of “helping our clients make projects happen” through identifying client needs, and working with the client to identify funding sources. Additionally, Washburn emphasizes the value of reinvention and ensuring a firm portfolio that is diverse, both in project type and geographically. Her employee-owned company values flexibility to accelerate the launch of aspects of its strategic plan as needed.

Cultivate specialties: Even in its 50th year, Hawk’s practice has found in the last 5-10 years, “we are getting more reward out of having a specialty” that enriches partnerships with clients.

Job searcher advice: Ask questions about business continuity in your interviews. The answer will give you insight into both the firm’s culture/structure, and its resilience. Sample questions include: How are you ensuring that your portfolio is diversified enough to compensate for heightened industry unpredictability? How did your firm handle the recession in 2008, and how are you handling it with today’s market?

Nailing your resume, portfolio and interview

What are firms looking for, and how can you stand out?

Communication counts: It’s not just about your technical savvy. Focus not just on software skills, but soft skills. In interviews, firm leaders are evaluating your communication skills with a view toward how you’ll present to clients. Can you explain your concept, and understand the client’s needs? Don’t be surprised if you’re thrown an “off the wall” question just to see how you handle it.

Show your strengths: Not an extrovert? Don’t despair. Employers recognize and value other skills like your “analytical side, solid understanding of integrative architecture, use of different software and calculation techniques.” Bottom line from Washburn: “Keep working on soft skills but emphasize other things you have to offer.”

Resume vs portfolio: Which is more important? Both. Make sure you fully represent a diversity of project types and effectively communicate your passions and interests so firm leaders can see how you’d fit in – and help you grow in your career down the road. Reference letters from clients are especially effective.

Find your fit: Creating and maintaining an optimal firm culture is a priority for firm leaders. As Clark puts it, “we can make architects, but you can’t teach character or attitude.” While you’re showcasing your skills, don’t neglect to demonstrate traits that make you a good colleague, collaborator, and creative partner. Clark: “There is no one designer; the best idea wins. If a janitor has the best idea for a school, that’s what we’ll use.” Hawk adds: “Know yourself, reflect on yourself and what you have to offer, what you want. Then you’ll find that culture.”  

The art of negotiation: From salary to benefits to location, what’s negotiable varies by firm. If those traditional categories aren’t on the negotiating table, don’t overlook other avenues. Consider negotiating for career-building experiences, funding for additional education or attending conventions, etc. Regardless of the outcome, negotiating might give you a leg up. Hawk: “Negotiating gives confidence they’ll be able to handle themselves in front of a client” and demonstrates ability to “talk intelligently, respectfully, and stand up for the integrity of a design.”

Job searcher advice: “If you made it to an interview, it’s your job to lose because we’ve seen something in you that sparked an interest,” Washburn says. “If you can demonstrate that and bring your best, you have a good chance.”

Unique considerations for a unique time

The pandemic has catalyzed some new work trends and accelerated others, like virtual collaboration. In this lightning round, our panelists address a variety of COVID-specific questions.

Is anyone hiring right now? Yes – with caveats. Each of our panelists have recently hired, been hired, or expect to hire. In many respects, the current uncertainty mirrors the cycles architecture firms are accustomed to. As Hawk puts it: “We are always hiring and always not hiring. We could win a commission next week that requires more people, or projects could go on hold.” Jacobs has a colleague who applied to a firm that was not hiring, only to end up being hired the next week. His takeaway: “Still apply, and figure out who to contact.”

Are there opportunities for international candidates? Yes. Despite the challenges of shifting state and international quarantine measures, our firm leader panelists report nothing has changed about their interest in hiring international students, who greatly contribute to the diverse perspectives the panelists prioritize in their firms.

Do firms have effective remote onboarding processes? Firm leaders report that virtual technology has significantly improved collaboration within their practice and between their firms and clients, and the COVID crisis has actually made that more clear. Panelists say their firms’ prior dedication to building relationships through a thoughtful onboarding process has transitioned effectively to a virtual process.  

What skills are firms looking for right now?

  • Sustainability: Be familiar with AIA’s Framework for Design Excellence, Washburn advises, and emphasize how your skill set matches up. Demonstrate your ability to detach sustainability from a specific project and instead make it a philosophy for design.
  • Software: With so much software evolution, including firms developing their own software, don’t just showcase your platform-specific knowledge; show how you embrace technology in general.
  • Writing: You’ll be sending emails and letters to clients and CEOs. Your resume, cover letter and other pre-interview written communications are your chance to show your writing ability and attention to detail. Show you’re a stickler for detail now, Clark says, because your career as an architect will involve “million-dollar details” that impact health, safety, and welfare.

Job searcher advice: How can you ensure your new job will be secure? “All you can do is ask the right questions, and understand the firm’s project types and clients,” Jacobs advises. “Ask about backlog and future projects: why are they hiring now? Make yourself as knowledgeable as possible.”

Words of Wisdom

Parting advice from the panel.

Nicole Washburn: Know yourself, understand your value; take this time to explore your passion and set your own course. You can always change direction, but if you set your course close to your passion initially, it will be a lot easier to keep charting that course.

Jonathon Jacobs: Use this time to develop your skills. Leverage technology, go on YouTube and learn [skills your training may not have prioritized, like] construction assemblies. Spend some time really investing in yourself. You don’t know when that knowledge will benefit you.

Timothy Hawk: It’s a complex profession, and a precarious time. Embrace complexity and uncertainty; your education should have prepared you for that because that’s what architecture is: a blend of science with art and business. Lots of factors can change things on a dime. Keep seeking, asking.

Nathanial Clark: Love yourself, understand who you are. Operate as if the box does not exist. You’ll be fine.

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