Though environmental focus has been a passionate cause in the interior design community for many years, “sustainability” just recently emerged as a mainstream buzzword. The word takes on a whole new meaning, however, when it becomes acutely personal – as in relation to employment. One definition of “sustainability” on Dictionary.com is “to keep (a person, the mind, the spirits, etc.) from giving way, as under trial or affliction”. According to the Georgia Department of Labor, which services my state of residence, the unemployment rate has increased 3% in the past year. The unemployment rate for architectural, engineering, and related services has grown 3.4% in the past year. The question becomes: How can interior designers personally sustain themselves and survive a layoff”
If you are experiencing a layoff, you are definitely not alone. Friends and family will continually remind you of this fact, thinking it is a comforting statement. The pessimist will choose to view it as a reminder of all the competition out there who is searching for the same few jobs. Conversely, the optimist will consider the truth of this comfort: You are unemployed not because you are inadequate; you are unemployed because the economy is suffering a downturn of proportions many say is the worst they have ever seen.
Since I was laid off on Halloween 2008 and given a formal notice of separation, I have been a frequent visitor to the Georgia Department of Labor’s Cobb / Cherokee Career Center. I participated in the required Re-Employment Services orientation session in early December, and although most topics were common sense – “Don’t use an email address like SexyMan555@hotmail.com or BossLady01@yahoo.com” and “Arrive prepared and early for an interview” – some of the information presented was more useful.
As a young member of the workforce, the idea that this layoff probably will not be my last hit home. I am not searching for a job – I am simply managing my career.
Society has changed since the days of my grandparents, who all survived the Great Depression. It is rare for people to have the same employer for 30 years and almost unheard of in the design community. The leader of the orientation session shared this suggestion: If you are 35 or younger, 18 months is an acceptable tenure at an employer. For those 35 and older, three years is appropriate. The concept of career management is one to implement now rather than later. Plan, both financially and mentally, for the unexpected loss of a job.
Another concept, while not new, but equally as valuable, is viewing and expressing your layoff as a transition rather than a period of unemployment. Those of us who are re-employed can easily attest to the fact that the time spent without a job was truly a transition between one position and the next.
The following are some tips that I have gathered along the way that will help all of you interior designers out there in transition. Individually, they may seem surprisingly elementary, but collectively, they are empowering.
Maintain a positive outlook: Do whatever it takes physically, mentally, and spiritually to keep a “can-do” attitude. Exercise, eat right, pray or meditate, and interact with your family and friends.
Schedule your time: Use your newfound free time effectively. Daily and weekly schedules can help you stay on track to meet your goals. Events scheduled in the weeks or months ahead can give you something exciting to look forward to or a goal to work towards.
Set small goals: Use a to-do list and check off tasks as you complete them. It works on the job, and it will work while you’re searching for a new job too.
Network: We are in a small industry. While the Internet and posted jobs are good tools for career management, staying in contact with industry members and colleagues on a regular basis can provide solid leads. Continue to attend industry events and let everyone know you are ready and available to work. Check back in with contacts every few weeks or so to update them on your progress and to find out if they know of any new leads.
Enhance your qualifications: If you are not NCIDQ certified and are eligible to take the exam, register now and start studying. Also, consider becoming a LEED Accredited Professional [LEED AP]. These two qualifications can make you more valuable to an employer, and taking either exam while in transition from one job to the next shows dedication to the profession.
Another qualification to consider is the CAPS designation: Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist. This program is provided through the National Association of Homebuilders and could prove to be very valuable for designers working in the residential market. Also for residential designers, the National Kitchen and Bath Association offers several levels of certification for those that specialize in kitchen and bath design.
Enhance your skills: Check out classes at local universities or technical schools. A few classes in a graphics or 3-D rendering program could give you an edge against the competition.
Improve your interviewing skills: Practice interviewing with a friend or colleague. Prepare answers for common interview questions like “Tell me about yourself” and “Why did you leave your last position”” Even if you are bitter about your lay-off, remember to never speak negatively about your former employer. The prospective employer will be afraid you would give them the same disrespectful treatment. Also, be ready with questions for the interviewer as you are interviewing them just as much as they are interviewing you. Find out all you can about the firm before your interview and ask appropriate questions about their project types and the way their studios or teams are set up.
Mind your manners: Always remember to send a thank-you email and a handwritten thank-you note immediately after an interview. The extra time taken to write a handwritten note shows your desire and dedication to working for the firm.
Consider contract employment: In this rough economy, some firms may not be willing or ready to hire full-time employees, but they may be able to hire temporary or contract employees. Working on contract can be beneficial because it gives you a chance to learn about a new firm, prove yourself to them, and earn some income.
Stay informed: Keep up with what’s going on in the industry by reading industry trade magazines and your organizations’ alerts. Also consider reading blogs. A former colleague, Kristin Edenfield, took her extra time and has put it to some great use – check out Discover Interior Design. I also recommend Design*Sponge, Apartment Therapy, and, of course, PLiNTH & CHiNTZ. You may even consider writing your own blog.
I have heard repeatedly from many designers that this is the biggest downturn they have seen in our industry. Since I joined the workforce after September 11th, this is the only downturn I’ve personally experienced. Despite the gloom and doom that pervades the media, choose to remain positive and believe that 2009 will bring the turning point we’re all longing for. Our country has survived many momentous events: the Civil War, the Great Depression, and two World Wars just to name a few. We will survive this recession. Perhaps some of us will even adopt some old-fashioned methods used during the Great Depression, and find that sustainability – both personal and environmental – is not a new idea at all.
A version of this article first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2009 issue of INDESIGN, the ASID Georgia Chapter newsletter.