There is no doubt that the economy has taken its toll on the design and construction industries over the past year, and with it, its job market. Looking for work is always a rigorous proposition, no matter the economic climate, but for graduates entering the workplace now, their job search will be one of the most difficult they experience in their careers.
Prior to the economic crash, soon-to-be graduates in lighting design could expect to receive multiple job offers early in their final year of study, providing them with a choice when it came to selecting a firm they wished to work for. But as the economy has stalled, so, too, has hiring, and the number of job offers aspiring lighting designers can expect to receive are dwindling. Where once lighting students enjoyed multiple offers, now they are grateful for even a single choice. “Across the board the job market isn't what it was a few years ago,” says Shadie Wiland, a 2008 International Association of Lighting Designer's (IALD) Education Trust scholarship recipient who studied interior design at Florida State University and is employed with New York–based lighting design firm Fisher Marantz Stone.
Kanis Glaewketgarn, on the other hand, is one of the few exceptions. Glaewketgarn graduated in May 2009 from Pennsylvania State University with an integrated bachelor's and master's of architectural engineering, focusing in lighting design, and had four job offers to choose from. He decided to accept a position with Schuler Shook's Chicago office, where he had interned the previous summer. Glaewketgarn notes that employment was very much on his and his fellow students' minds. “We talked about it all the time,” he says. “It was definitely harder to get offers, and only a few of us received multiple invitations.”
A drop-off rate in job offers also is being observed by lighting educators. Kevin Houser, associate professor at Penn State (and interview subject of our “One-on-One” article for this month, page 56), sees approximately 10 to 15 or so undergraduate students and a handful of graduate students pass through the Penn State Architectural Engineering program each year. While there is no hard data on how many job offers students have received in past years, Houser says the anecdotal evidence for 2009 suggests their options are quite limited. “My informal sense from talking to students is that where a couple years ago a student may have had four offers, now it's more like they have one or maybe two,” he says.
Philip Gabriel, principal of Ottawa-based lighting design firm Gabriel Mackinnon and board member of the IALD Education Trust, estimates that across the globe there are roughly 140 lighting design graduates each year, with 40 to 60 coming from North American programs. Gabriel bases his estimate on the number of students likely to go into lighting design from 11 different programs that offer some type of degree associated with lighting. With that small of a number, it is likely that most graduates will find a job in some sector of the lighting industry, although initially they might have to consider work beyond the traditional path of a design firm and contemplate work with a manufacturer or an energy company.
“There are a lot of different things available to you if you know your stuff,” says Meghan Smith-Campbell, a 2008 graduate of Parsons The New School for Design who began employment at lighting design firm Atelier Ten's New Haven, Conn., office. Choices for a recent graduate include working for a manufacturer, a school or university, a publication, a professional organization such as the IALD or the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES), the government, an engineering firm, or an architecture firm. “There's a lot more options, rather than just saying, ‘I'm a student, I graduated in New York City, the top five firms that I want to go work for are these,'” Smith-Campbell says. “If they're not hiring, then you need to think about all the things you are qualified to do, which includes everything from teaching to writing IES files that other professionals can use, to selling or showcasing different fixtures.”
Lighting design is still a growing field in need of practitioners, educators, and innovators. For those who are trying to land a job, the down economy simply means they are going to have to try a little harder. Both Smith-Campbell and Glaewketgarn had to work to find their employment. Smith-Campbell's strategy was to keep lines of communications open with those professors whose work interested her so that when a position did become available she had an opportunity to interview. Glaewketgarn sought out companies he was interested in, and interned with them.
RESOURCES AND NETWORKING The basics of job hunting haven't changed over time, but they do need to be adapted for new platforms such as the Internet. Send out cover letters and tell people about yourself, Glaewketgarn says, and follow up by e-mailing a résumé and links to an online portfolio. “I've been telling my friends to reach out to firms because you can't just rely on your school's career fair,” he says. “Connections through the IALD Enlighten Conference and Lightfair also help.”
Certainly, students with some work experience are more attractive to employers. Derek Porter, director of the MFA Lighting Design program at Parsons, tells his students to focus on getting work. (The program graduates roughly 20 students a year.) “That's the most important thing: Continue your education and get some experience,” he says. “The first job you get will not be your last.”
To find opportunities for experience, a student has to seek out the right people, make the right contacts, and be aggressive in pursuit. For Fisher Marantz Stone's Wiland, networking was a crucial part of the process. In today's market, that could mean looking past a firm's website that suggests it is not hiring. “Most places don't advertise when they're hiring, especially right now,” Wiland says. “It's a matter of getting out there, and really taking that stand to go after the job you want.”
Professional organizations such as the IALD and the IES can be good resources for contacts, internships, job banks, and even scholarships. Despite the weak job market, interest in lighting design is increasing. There is a growing public awareness about energy conservation and the role that lighting plays. And that leads Penn State's Houser to suggest it actually may be a good time to be graduating as a lighting designer. “The issues and considerations of sustainability, energy use, and quality of buildings is really something that lay people are thinking about,” Houser says. “There are incredible opportunities for lighting, and I think it's something that's in the public's mind more than it ever has been in the past. The opportunity for a young lighting designer—if they don't just think of the next six months, but they think about the next decade—are tremendous. There are wonderful things ahead.”
Porter concurs. “Architects are interested in more integrated thoughtful design, owner groups and the public at large are aware of energy efficiencies and economies as well as the qualitative aspects of light,” he says. “As that continues to advance, there's going to be more demand on specialists who understand how to apply these qualitative and quantitative measures in an appropriate fashion.”
While current job conditions might appear dim, both students and practitioners should be thinking long term. “We've hit a critical mass, where the demand on the profession is going to continue to grow exponentially,” Porter says. “We have to get informed people out in the marketplace and be prepared to address the issues.” When the economy rebounds, there will be plenty of eager recent graduates ready to take up the mantle of lighting design.