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2023 Architecture Job Market Commentary

Architecture Director James Jackson reflects on a year full of unexpected opportunities, sharing the very real challenges the market is navigating and looking ahead to what might be in store for 2024.

Christmas is often a time of reflection both professionally and personally, it’s the one holiday of the year where the majority in both the Architectural and recruitment industries can down-tools and properly unwind, safe in the knowledge that the Construction industry is taking a well-deserved break ahead of a new year of challenges and opportunity.

I recall thinking around that time in 2022 that Q1 of 2023 would be pivotal in setting the tone for what the year would bring. There was a lot of negative noise in the press about the UK heading for a recession, December was a lot quieter than the previous years, the Covid bounce was inevitably slowing, rising interest rates were substantially cooling the housing market, the cost of living crisis biting, spiralling inflation, consumer confidence down… the new year’s prospects were being talked down and with several obvious red warning lights flashing, the 2023 outlook seemed bleak.

I boldly predicted the year would at least see a levelling up of the market which had staunchly remained very candidate-led since the Covid recovery began, it seemed inevitable it would switch to a candidate and client-led market i.e. fewer job opportunities and likely more candidates on the open market. January and indeed all Q1 across our core regions defied expectations and 2023 started very positively. Comparing job data from the same period 12 months earlier new job instructions were in fact trending slightly higher, on average our consultants were handling between 30 – 45 new job instructions per month, with demand far outweighing supply, the biggest challenge remained unearthing talent committed to making the move. It was clear despite some markets beginning to inevitably cool down, investor confidence despite the headwinds remained strong and development demand in areas such as build-rent, Student Accommodation and remarkably grade-A office space remained very buoyant and set the tone for an unexpectedly strong start to the year.

With Easter upon us and the King's Coronation on the horizon, navigating the short weeks slowed the market slightly with an up-turn again in early summer and then the traditional slow down during the summer holidays, quite significantly compared to the previous year.  Job demand really picked up again in September and as year-end approached, whilst the market wasn’t anywhere near as frantic as in previous years the architecture jobs scene remained really quite unexpectedly buoyant, but despite the many opportunities out there, the market from a recruitment perspective is seriously challenging... more of this later.

Not all our Architecture clients have had it all their own way, several of our very active hiring Practices in the previous years have consolidated in 2023, others have continued to execute their growth strategy, some have unexpectedly needed to recruit and a few have struggled.

A mixed bag of fortunes but overall, hiring confidence throughout the year exceeded many people’s (including mine) expectations despite there being some significant challenges to navigate. A cautious optimism is a theme several of the key decision makers we speak to would summarise the year's fortunes and I would agree with this synopsis.

 

Some of the notable market trends for 2023……It’s been the year of the experienced hire.

The majority of the registered vacancies we market on behalf of our Architectural Practices, Consultancies and Developer clients are for candidates who come with experience and can hit the ground running. Very notable this year has been the downturn in the number of Architectural Assistant roles registered, especially in the traditionally busy period around the end of Spring, and early summer.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this is, a reasonable suggestion is many practices already had more quota of Assistant hires than previous years due to the Covid bounce. The struggles of the talent market have forged closer links between Architectural Practices and local Universities which has resulted in fewer instructions. Some of this could also be market-driven and despite the drop off in demand, nonetheless, our consultants have gone above and beyond to offer their services including CV writing, interview technique, portfolio formatting and offering sound career advice to those setting out in their careers.

 

That age-old problem for our clients of when to hire..

A quandary for all our clients is when do they push the button on hiring staff, especially so in an up and down market when often caution prevails, is it when a project looks likely to land or once fully instructed? It’s an increasingly difficult balancing act not being helped with significant reported delays in the planning system. Our advice to our clients is to hire strategically & responsibly, factoring in the challenges of securing experienced hires the more notice we are given, the better! This has become more apparent this year with a little bit of uncertainty certainly affecting hiring confidence.

 

Architecture and Construction challenges...

There have been some significant challenges our clients have faced this year, despite material costs now starting to fall slightly there are still substantial product shortages which have led to a decline in Construction output, thus causing delays in projects getting out of the ground which is affecting our client's output on Technical delivery stages of projects. We also have the recent introduction of the Building Safety Act, widely viewed as a welcome groundbreaking reform but there remains uncertainty about how this will be successfully implemented into future project design. It will be interesting to see how the industry further adapts to this in 2024.

What’s what sector-wise?

Some sectors have seen a drop off in demand, the previously frantic logistics & distribution industry driven by the e-commerce boom has slowed but the most notable dip has been within the Residential space. The domestic market has slowed considerably due to higher borrowing costs and material prices remaining stubbornly high. New build house sales have typically slowed year on year which has reduced the amount of design roles becoming available within our Developer and House building clients. Reassuringly, land transactions have remained strong, suggesting confidence in the longer term outlook looks a lot more positive, coupled with mortgage rates now starting to fall, could the housing market be through the worst…

The modular housing industry especially in Yorkshire has been hard hit, production costs, a planning system not designed for the speed of modular housing sites and logistical issues have resulted in a couple of high-profile casualties. The same can be said for our SME Practices which rely on self-builds and domestic extensions, many have consolidated, and several have sadly made redundancies. Sectors that continue to flourish are large-scale build-rent, student accommodation, high-tech manufacturing, food retail and cyclical education framework project awards. Remarkably, demand for Grade A office space continues to grow, the return to the office is real and progressive businesses now view a contemporary flexible office space as a way to entice people back to the office!

 

Avoiding the counteroffer scenario...

It’s still a rife practice and understandably so, no well-run business wants to see their best people just walk out the door, especially so when replacing is expensive and not guaranteed! It’s often something quite trivial that drives a candidate towards the exit door, our job as consultants is to tap into our candidate's justification to move and if we feel it’s something that can be easily fixed we encourage them to engage in discussions with their current employer. Giving them the benefit of the doubt is the right approach, if the driving forces to move are not then resolved candidates have conviction in their job search, and the likelihood of the cracks being papered over by accepting a counteroffer are vastly reduced.

 

Have there been pay rises this year?

A pattern latterly in 2022 was for a number of businesses to increase pay in line with inflation, typically between 5-8% annual increase. This worked well for various reasons, firstly it was a nod that businesses were helping their employees with the very real cost of living squeeze which many people looked to solve by asking for a pay increase or taking the plunge and moving for more money! Secondly, it prevented an even greater distortion in salaries across the sector which do vary wildly depending on location and the emergence of client-side opportunities.

Salary increases in 2023 are not on the level of previous years but out of our top 30 spend clients, 74% have increased salaries this year between 2-5%.

 

Candidates, what do you need to be market-ready?

Besides a genuine reason to move, paramount is having a concise and well-presented updated CV and accompanying sample portfolio to showcase your best work, a recent trend that’s set to continue is hiring firms becoming increasingly picky with their hires, ensuring you present the best version of your CV portfolio will guarantee you have the best chance of securing that all-important interview. Our Architecture team are trained to offer advice and tips on CV formatting, interview preparation and presentation techniques to nail those interviews. Furthermore, proper representation in an increasingly crowded market is very important, choose carefully who you partner up with, a targeted and measured approach to the search is our tip, the icing on the cake with a recruiter who has forged those long-standing relationships to unlock opportunities others simply can’t.

 

Is there a full-scale return to the office going on?

2023 has certainly seen a resurgence of getting back into the office, team collaboration is a crucial part of design and the office working environment is here to stay! The difference now is there are more flexible working spaces with the emergence of co-working hubs, spaces that are suited to hot desking and accommodating the modern hybrid working model. Candidates now have a clear choice – full-time in the office or hybrid working, it’s not a one-size-fits-all but certainly, from a hiring perspective, firms who offer more flexibility generally have the edge when it comes to hiring the best people.

 

What’s in store for 2024?

Recent news of securing significant global investment is a welcome boost to the economy with a significant amount of this new investment earmarked for new Construction & Infrastructure projects. Coupled with inflation halving, a largely optimistic Autumn budget, and interest rates likely to have peaked, the more optimistic amongst us would view the outlook as an improving picture.

But with significant challenges remaining in the industry, a flat-lining economy, wider world issues causing uncertainty and an election year coming up, it does feel like Q1 2024 will be pivotal once again in setting the tone for what lies ahead next year. Cautious optimism has prevailed in 2023 and there are reasons to be hopeful as we head into the new year!

 

Written by James Jackson

Architecture Director

Please feel free to contact James directly for an updated view of the market, to discuss this market commentary or any information in this salary survey on 0333 307 9002

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