Yes. Talk with any lighting designer and they will tell you the profession is facing a monumental problem: a shortage of lighting designers in the workforce. And the problem is even more complicated than that—it’s actually twofold. For one thing, there is a limited number of lighting programs across the country and around the globe, and they graduate a finite number of students each year. That number is not, and never has been, in sync with the number of employees that lighting design firms seek to hire. For another thing, the 2008 recession created a gap in the workforce when it comes to midcareer professionals, those individuals that have 10 to 15 years of experience. Design firms need these midcareer individuals to manage projects.
The seriousness of the issue has reached crisis proportions. It was practically all anyone talked about at the recent International Association of Lighting Designers Annual Enlighten Americas conference from Oct. 8 to 10 in Baltimore. A number of business-focused seminars addressed the issue, such as “Designing the Perfect Hire,” “The 60 Minute Project Manager,” and “Agents of Change for Lighting Education.”
The challenges facing the future of the profession and how it educates and supports the next generation of lighting designers is not a new topic for this column. Nor is the discussion of how to maintain, grow, and support academic lighting programs and lighting educators. But what is really being done in the field?
Over the past decade, there have been a few meetings of lighting educators, held during trade shows such as Lightfair and Light+Building when the lighting community is already gathering, to discuss the establishment of a universal curriculum that could serve as a guide no matter the specific requirements of a particular school or country’s education system. In the past, I’ve asked why there is no formal organization of lighting educators (which should be an easy way to make sure that education discussions are always on the table). This question is always met first with silence and then a rushed reply: “There are too many organizations and committees in lighting. That’s not what we need.”
But clearly the lighting design community needs to take action if it is to increase the number of people who study lighting design and pursue it as a career. What I have yet to see is an assembly of all the constituents who are dedicated to discussing the state of lighting education and its roadmap for the future. If the current shortage of lighting designers proves anything, it is that such a meeting and conversation needs to take place now. Lighting educators and practitioners should be talking more directly and frequently with one another, so that the gap between the world of the academy and the world of practice does not become an obstacle. Meanwhile, lighting designers should not be shy about picking up the phone and calling educators to let them know that their firm is looking to hire. This is especially important for firms that are not located in the big cities where graduates typically look for employment.
The lighting community also needs to be talking with its colleagues in architecture, interior design, theater, landscape architecture, and industrial design to share information, experiences, and best practices for dealing with the challenges of educating future design practitioners. The lighting community has an opportunity to think beyond traditional design arenas and to potentially create new interdisciplinary models with business, urban planning, social work, and computer science programs. The current shortage of lighting designers doesn’t have to remain an unsolvable problem. It’s an opportunity for the lighting community and one that I am committed to discussing as architectural lighting celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2016.