How to take positive steps forward if you are a furloughed student in practice

Guidance for furloughed students in practice on how to take positive steps during the current crisis from David Gloster, RIBA Director of Education.

22 April 2020

If you’ve always wanted to work for a certain practice, and then landed that job for what you’d hoped might be many exciting years, the shock at hearing your practice will furlough you or – worse still – make you redundant, can’t be rationalised. It’s miserable news, and sadly the upcoming recession is going to claim some big dreams and wonderful projects. Equally, if you’re a student about to graduate and take a role in practice for your year out, or an apprentice balancing work and academic study, the possibility of furloughing and redundancy make a worrying situation worse.

While serious, the current crisis reflects a very long history of global pandemics, and half a century of economic fluctuations that always hurt design and construction, and those connected to them. As architects, we need money in the economy to tempt clients to invest in architecture; if there is uncertainty, that money remains unspent. When times are tough, developers at all scales of operation sell sites and projects to keep cash flowing, and minimise the interest paid on borrowing. Normally, crises highlight some part of the global economy as an escape route for our profession, but this situation is very different, and options – at first sight – seem fewer.

However, architects are versatile problem solvers, so can being furloughed or made redundant be approached in a way that leaves you feeling stronger rather than weaker? The key to this is taking a longer view of the current crisis than the news arriving on your phone or TV, and understanding how to take advantage of time you never expected to have. Most in the profession know architecture has social and cultural benefits; this is a good moment to see if, as architects, we can still contribute to this.

If you’re an apprentice, student, graduate or architect who is suddenly less busy than you’d like, here are some possibilities:

Keep in touch with your peer group

This may seem obvious but check all your friends to see how they are and the position they’re in with their work. This helps you come to terms with your change in circumstances and develops good ideas about coping. Sharing experiences shows your situation isn’t unique and gives an opportunity to think of new collaborations and projects with those people you know best.

Volunteer for work outside architecture

Many people comment on how this crisis makes them feel powerless or out of control. Yet for those who are old, unwell, homeless or lonely, the collapse of street life and normal society makes a difficult situation harder still. Volunteering for the NHS, delivering food for a charity or running emergency errands for neighbours are all possibilities; voluntary organisations are being hit hard by this crisis, so need your help.

Seek to shadow someone who is working

Some practices have more work than others, so if you know of a practice which is busy, ask them if they can identify a mentor in the practice. This will allow you an overview of their projects, or explain how the business has adapted to different circumstances. You’re getting a perspective on professional skills, and the contacts you make in that practice may be useful if they take on new staff.

Put yourself forward to mentor students

You know how practices work, so consider mentoring a small group of students who were about to start work after graduation, but had to change their plans. Making the transition from a school of architecture to an office is challenging, even for the most resilient person. There’s much that’s new, so if you could offer insights on how things work, and what might be expected of students, this could be really valuable when they find work later.

Hone your CV and find new work

There is work beyond this crisis, and refining and adding to your CV now means you’ll be ready to apply for jobs when they become available. Keep an eye on which sectors of the economy are coming out of lockdown, stay open-minded about who you work for and where. This may mean changing your medium-term plans, but being adaptable will create new opportunities.

Pursue new contacts

Little social interaction means people are keener to talk, and are open to possibilities. Create or update your LinkedIn profile. Present an informative and structured presentation of your skills, and seek to connect with people in the profession you may never have dreamt of talking to. Then ask them if they can spare 15 minutes of their time for a video meeting. One unexpected encounter may lead to some interesting professional possibilities.

Learn new skills … and start a new business

Architects work long hours, and there’s never enough time to do all the things you promised yourself. With lockdown offering more time than usual, use it to master complex software, learn a second or third language, make a book proposal or develop management skills and qualifications via online tuition; all good CV material. Or take the opportunity to enter your designs into a competition, such as RIBAJ Eye Line that has a student category.

And finally, because architects are so versatile, think if there are needs emerging during this crisis that you can meet by starting a new enterprise. General Electric, Disney, IBM, Microsoft and FedEx all started during a recession …

The 2020 RIBAJ free-to-enter Eye Line competition for drawing and rendering skills is open for entries until Monday 8 June 2020.

RIBA Future Architects is our network and community for future and emerging architects, designed to support, inspire and provide a voice as you transition from study to practice. View our resources.

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