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New Great Recession Threatens Loss Of Another Generation Of Minority Architects

Kimberly Dowdell began her architecture career just as the Great Recession started to drag down the U.S. construction industry, leading developers to cancel many ambitious projects. A lot of architects were soon out of work, including many minorities, a setback to diversity in a profession that, much like commercial real estate, remained white-dominated.

With a pandemic now wreaking havoc on the U.S. economy and millions of young people losing jobs at the beginning of their careers, Dowdell worries that history may repeat itself. As head of the National Organization for Minority Architects, the Chicago-based director of business development at HOK is making plans to help firms hold onto new talent, rather than stand by and watch as economic pressures force them out, perhaps never to return to their chosen field.

New Great Recession Threatens Loss Of Another Generation Of Minority Architects
Lauren Kirk in Venice in 2019. Kirk lost her architecture job during the Great Recession and never returned to the industry.

“We definitely saw many people who graduated with architecture degrees between 2005 and 2010 who had to find a different path,” Dowdell said.

She graduated from Cornell University with an architecture degree in 2006, along with about 60 others.

“Today, of the 60, maybe 20 are still practicing architecture in the traditional sense, and that’s being generous,” she said.  

After having risen steadily for more than a decade, the number of African Americans securing an architectural license went into a steep decline in the recession’s wake, according to the Directory of African American Architects, a project sponsored by the Center for the Study of Practice at the University of Cincinnati.

In 2009, 71 African Americans received a license, the most since 1995, the group found. That pace slowed in the next few years, falling to just 34 in 2014, the fewest since the 2001 recession. 

Dowdell attributes some of the losses to the profession’s lack of financial rewards, at least for beginners, who typically serve long apprenticeships where they focus on mundane tasks such as researching fire codes or designing a building’s plumbing. The median salary for a newly minted graduate in the U.S. is about $53K, according to a 2019 compensation report by the American Institute of Architects.

“The starting salaries in architecture are nowhere near where other professions start out, so strictly from an economic perspective, architecture doesn’t make sense,” she said.

Although she saw people of all ethnicities and backgrounds leave the profession, the economic downturn in 2009 cut deeper into minority communities, Dowdell added. She pointed out that according to a 2020 Brookings Institution study, a typical white family in the U.S. has 10 times the net worth of a typical black family.  

“If you get let go, it’s probably harder for you to weather the storm if you don’t come from a wealthy background,” she said. “There was a larger percentage of people of color who had to find a different path.”

New Great Recession Threatens Loss Of Another Generation Of Minority Architects

Lauren Kirk, another 2006 Cornell graduate, was one of the many architecture rookies pushed out by the 2009 economic downturn. It had been the career she always dreamed about.

“My dad is an architect, so it’s in my blood, and I always knew I wanted to do it,” she said. “I never wavered, I never looked at anything else.”

Kirk was three years into an internship at tvsdesign in Atlanta, doing all of the grind work commonly handled by beginners, when she was laid off and faced a decision.

“It’s a big hit to your ego, and young people who don’t come from independently wealthy families can’t sit around a whole year with no income, wait for something to come along and then compete against other out-of-work architects who may have 20 years of experience,” she said.

Kirk decided to return to school, got an MBA in real estate management from Ohio State University and then spent nine years at Macy’s, eventually becoming responsible for a portfolio of around 200 stores.   

The lateral career move brought some advantages, not all of them financial. Kirk was handed more responsibility than she would have had as an architect and led teams of architects and contractors reconstructing such iconic downtown stores as Chicago’s State Street Macy’s.

Kirk recently started a new job as project director for Brixmor Property Group, a REIT that owns open-air shopping malls across the U.S.

“I definitely miss the creativity of architecture, but from a relationship standpoint, I am no longer behind a desk, so I would not have the network I now have if I had stayed in architecture,” Kirk said. “Looking at my peers and judging myself against them, I think I’m doing very well.”

Her new profession also has a long way to go to achieve diversity.

“I can count on my hands how often I’ve attended meetings where there was another African American in the room, and only once was there a black woman," she said. "So one meeting in nine years.”

New Great Recession Threatens Loss Of Another Generation Of Minority Architects
Kimberly Dowdell

Luck may have played a role in keeping Dowdell on the path of to an architecture career. As the economy cratered in 2008, she was at HOK in New York City. Much of the work was on a design for Doha International Airport in Qatar, and projects backed by such wealthy countries were immune from the economic pressure afflicting other development work, she said.      

Dowdell later took a detour from architecture, getting a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and going to work as a planner for the city of Detroit, her hometown. She returned to HOK last year.

For those without her kind of luck, Dowdell hopes architecture’s professional associations, along with its influential firms, will respond to this downturn by putting together plans to hold onto talent.

“I would like to think that the profession has better infrastructure in place, but I’m not sure we do,” she said.

In 2015, black architects began a bit of a comeback when 73 secured licenses, according to the directory. But the total number of African Americans working as practicing architects remains low. The directory found 2,306 living African American licensed architects at the end of 2019, or around 2% of the approximately 115,316 total architects licensed in the U.S.

As head of NOMA, Dowdell leads its efforts to construct a pipeline for aspiring minority architects. The organization recently launched a minority fellowship program that will help 25 architecture students get their foot in the door. NOMA will match the fellows with firms, pay each a stipend and hopefully secure more funds for real salaries.

“We’d love to offer this to more students, and we are encouraging other organizations, firms and companies to help us take the initiative and solve this problem head-on,” she said.  

Kirk said she is worried what will happen to architecture if it loses another generation of minorities.

“We live in a diverse world, but if you only have one group of people designing buildings, there is no diversity of thought, and we will be missing out on many ideas," she said. "We don’t want to live in a vanilla world. That’s no fun.”