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HEARD ON THE BEAT / REAL ESTATE

Out of Recession Rubble Rises a Hiring Bonanza for Architect

March 26, 1997|JESUS SANCHEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Many Southern California architects spent much of the early 1990s scrambling, often unsuccessfully, to snap up the few jobs that surfaced in their recession-ravaged profession.

"In the early '90s, there was so little work that people either left [the area] or went to other fields," said Los Angeles architect Robert Larlee.

But the fortunes and job prospects of local architects have brightened considerably over the last year as the regional economy stages a comeback and the international demand for design work remains strong.

The turnaround finds architectural firms scrambling for experienced designers and raiding rivals for hard-to-find talent. Architecture firms must also battle Hollywood studios and high-tech firms that pay top dollar for young architects with valuable computer design skills.

Hollywood studios "will pay whatever they have to pay to get people to work for them," said David Brotman, who heads the Los Angeles office of RTKL Associates, which has lost a few designers to entertainment recruiters. "They are the bane of my existence."

While there are no hard employment statistics available, architects and industry consultants said hiring began to pick up nationwide in 1994 and became noticeable among many Southern California firms last year.

"The whole country is looking pretty good," said recruiter Kathryn Sprankle, who works in the San Francisco office of Zweig White & Associates, an architectural consulting firm. "Firms are having an incredibly difficult time finding and then attracting people that they really need."

At the USC School of Architecture, most of this spring's approximately 65 graduates have already been snapped up by employers, said Dean Robert Timme.

"I could not have said that in the past," Timme said.

The recession created a gap in experience--of between five and 10 years--that expanding architecture firms are struggling to bridge. Not only did many architects drop out of the field before reaching those career milestones, but young designers avoided the business and architecture schools cut back on enrollment.

"Now, because of the resurgence in work for everyone, we are seeing a shortage of talented, experienced people," said Larlee, director of Los Angeles operations for the firm Hardy, Holzman Pfeiffer Associates. To help attract new employees, the firm has had to boost starting salaries as much as 10% to 20% in the last year.

After not hiring for several years, many firms are looking to infuse their organizations with new blood. In Venice, the firm of architect Jon Jerde went on a hiring spree last year and picked up about two dozen fledgling designers as the company has grown optimistic about future business.

"Domestically, there are quite a few [development] prospects that . . . will materialize in two or three years," said Eddie Wang, executive vice president at Jerde.

In Orange County, Chuck Trevisan, senior director for architecture and planning at Irvine Co., is struggling to keep up with the development company's highest level of construction and design activity since the late 1980s. As a result, the company and the many builders it deals with are in need of architects to handle everything from project management to signage.

"Since I'm overwhelmed, I'm out there hiring architects left and right to coordinate our work for us," Trevisan said.

The hiring boon at many firms has given architects choices they would not have had a few years ago.

Anne Krusemark, 29, recently interviewed with three firms and walked away with three job offers. The recent graduate started work a week later in the Mid-Wilshire offices of DMJM Keating. Finding a job is "pretty easy at the moment," she said.

When Los Angeles architect Gregory Baker, 47, began to look for a job this year, he expected a three-month search to find a senior-level position. Instead, he landed a job within four weeks at Hardy, Holzman Pfeiffer Associates.

"I had not intended for it to happen so quickly," Baker said.

Despite the brighter prospects, many young architects have abandoned their profession for positions at multimedia and entertainment companies. Travis Eastepp, for example, changed his mind about a career in architecture after finding himself bored as an intern working on such mundane features as firewalls.

Instead, the 25-year-old USC graduate now creates baseball stadiums and other environments that appear in the video games created by a Santa Monica software company. Not only does Eastepp find the work interesting and challenging, but after a short time, he expects to be earning a much larger salary than his peers in architecture firms, which are notorious for low pay. Starting pay for recent graduates averages about $25,000 annually, according to estimates by various architects.

"Within a year, I could probably be getting paid twice as much as what I would have made as an architect," Eastepp said.

Times staff writer Jesus Sanchez can be reached via e-mail at jesus.sanchez@latimes.com or by fax at (213) 237-7837.

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