Francis Cauffman President James Crispino Quoted in Philadelphia Business Journal
Some of the region's architectural firms are reporting a need to hire more people in what appears to be a solid sign the recovery is finally taking hold in a sector hit hard during the recession.
A range of firms - from small to large - say they have enough work and backlog to seek out new, full-time hires and see growth continuing into next year.
"We've been hiring," said James Crispino, president of Francis Cauffman of Philadelphia. "In the last eight weeks we hired five people and are looking for about five more over the next eight to 10 weeks."
The reason is simple: Francis Cauffman's backlog is much greater now than it was 18 months ago, Crispino said.
"That's good news," he said. "That is more of a general indicator that things are getting a little better."
While the firm started to see an uptick at the beginning of 2011, it-didn't start hiring right away. It waited until the middle of last year for the upswing to solidify and began to hire one or two new people here and there.
"It wasn't like I need eight people, go get them, which is where we are now," Crispino said.
Francis Cauffman managed through recession and now is seeing more projects from a variety of its clients - health care, universities and law firms.
While many architects continue to struggle to regain even a portion of the work they had before the recession, overall sense is that business for design firms is picking up. It's more than anecdotal.
The Architecture Billings Index, a leading economic indicator of construction activity, was released Oct. 24 and showed billings at architectural firms increased at the fastest pace since late 2010. The index reflects a nine- to 12-month lag between architectural firms and construction spending. Part of the surge is being attributed to new multifamily projects in the works, according to the American Institute of Architects, which issues the index.
Another firm, Meyer Design of Ardmore, has hired nine employees since January, increasing its ranks by 20 percent, said Norm Liedtke, who heads up the firm. Now with a 12-month window of work rather than a six- to 9-month window, Liedtke feels more comfortable making a commitment to investing in additional employees. One of the company's recent hires was someone concentrating on social media.
Demand has increased across the four sectors that Meyer focuses on, Liedtke said. Those areas are national corporate clients, regional companies, owner-developers who construct buildings for tenants, and senior living developments.
"Each one of those markets has improved," he said.
The attitude of decision makers has also changed. the mindset used to be 80/20 defense, it's now 80/20 offense, Liedtke said.
Since January 2010 to now, KieranTimberlake of Philadelphia has hired 30 people and projects continuing to hire well into 2013, said James Timberlake, a founding principal of the firm. The company, confident in its future and ongoing work load, spent $2.4 million to buy a 60,OOO-square-foot property in Northern Liberties and will relocate its headquarters there. Planning for growth, the building will accommodate more than 90 people. (See related story on this page).
The architectural business was so hard hit during the recession that many firms folded or merged into others for survival, others cut hours and days out of the work week as well as laid off employees. Meyer and KieranTimberlake suffered through a round of layoffs as work dwindled. Francis Cauffman eliminated 20 percent of its staff. It had been 150 strong and is now 110 and working its way back up.
"It was painful," Crispino said about having to let people go.
That pain has lingered and taught the firms to deploy different approaches to hiring. Before the economic meltdown, Francis Cauffman would begin to put a team together and hire additional employees if it saw work coming in the not too distant future. Now, it only hires once the client has given a project the green light.
"I think what has happened in my industry is we're all from Missouri now," Crispino said. "You have to show me the project and if we need additional resources to execute, we will get them at time."
While the firm's large clients all continue with projects that were funded, it was a lesson Crispino learned when he saw counterparts in the industry suffer when a client would abruptly put a development on hold after the firm had gone on a hiring spree.
"I think we all hire more reluctantly, carefully and selectively based on the last several years," said Liedtke of Meyer. "When you hire, you are really being pushed to do it because people are willing to work extra and longer than before because they know how precious a job is."
Meyer has also taken a different approach to new employees. It will first hire people as consultants.
"It's a test drive and we weren't able to do that before because they could go someplace else," Uedtke said, noting that it's a test not just for the firm but also the person to determine whether Meyer is the right fit. "You can take that step and turn that into a full-time hire."