The economy is getting better and hopefully you’ve mostly survived the bloodbath that has been the last year. Most businesses have used this time to “trim the fat,” “refocus,” and “expand their expertise.”

I was recently asked by a job seeker about what he could do to make himself more marketable. The reality is, at least in most firms, that there aren’t going to be a lot of jobs for a while. My firm has reduced everyone to four-day work weeks. So, even if the economy does completely rebound, we’ve got a built-in ability to expand our workforce 20% without hiring anyone. My advice to him: treat himself as a small business—do a lot of the things that smart small firms are doing. Use this time to: clean up and reorganize, retrain & learn new things, and volunteer and do the things you never had time to do before.

Clean up & Reorganize

My office is a small shop. At our largest, we were nine people. Right now we’re five. Amazingly, we seem to accumulate and collect documents, items, and samples as though  we were a 20-person office. Up until last fall, the past five years have been insanely busy and a lot of the standard office practices--filing and sorting and archiving--didn’t happen too often. Things piled up because there was a lot of billable work in the office. We’ve used the last year to get our house back in order, so to speak.


You can use this time as an opportunity to also clean up your marketing efforts. We’ve used the slow time to create a new Web page that better represents us. We’ve also created project sheets and stories that we’ve completed in the past five years but that never got any spotlight time. This time has let us tighten our brand image and review all of our marketing materials for consistent voice. It also freed us to update our data and images.

Retrain & Learn

Part of the advice that I also gave the job seeker was to use this time to educate himself on the latest stuff that’s going on in the industry. I suggested he get his LEED accredited professional (LEED AP) certification. I also suggested that, if he didn’t know Revit, he should learn it. There are some things that are just going to be expected of a professional when we do pull out of this recession. Being knowledgeable in both sustainability and building information modeling are two things that will be prerequisites before we hire anyone in the future. Two years ago, I would have said we hire for fit and ability and we can train you on the software. Today, the pool of people who are looking for work (and this goes for individuals as well as businesses) is very large, very hungry, and full of very talented people so I’m not going to waste precious resources training new hires on computer skills when I can be focusing on acclimating them to the projects they will manage and the culture of the office.

If you don’t have work, create some: enter competitions, write white papers, conduct research. This slow time is great time to learn everything you can about a project area or topic. Research, research, research: the Internet and the professional publications are resources that, if used properly, can be as stimulating as going back to school. Book knowledge will never replace real life experience; but when you’re looking for every opportunity to differentiate you or your company from the competition, there is great value in being able to speak intelligently about a specialty topic or project area. For about three weeks after the federal stimulus plan was passed, my business partner researched every government and utility rebate/tax credit plan out there that pertains to sustainability in buildings. We created a 30-page reference guide that is our Cliff Notes version of all the complicated information out there. The reference guide is now something that we can share with our old clients or with those who might be future clients. It gives people useful information, but it also differentiates us as a proactive design firm that thinks outside of the box and brings unsolicited creative approaches to our clients.

Volunteer & Do Things

A slow time is a great time to give back to the community through volunteering. There are a LOT of organizations that need professional help or can use the coordination and management help that your team brings to the table. My business partner and I sit on the boards of several grassroots organizations, as well as committees in our professional organizations. Firstly, we believe that it’s important to give back; but almost as important is the visibility that you get by being actively involved. “Active” is the important word there. People don’t notice membership lists. People pay attention to who is getting things done in an organization. Having a name tag and being seen at an event or fundraiser is fine; but the people who get noticed are the people putting the event together—the ones behind the registration table or running around making things happen.

In tight times, donating money isn’t always an option, so we donate our time… and significant amounts of it. Good quality contributions are worth the investment of your time. I’m talking about double-digit hours each month. When you serve on a board or work with other volunteers, be visible and be reliable. When things do pick up, the folks that get hired will be the ones that proved they were “go-to” people even when times were tough.

Brian McLaren, AIA is a founding partner of Ware Architecture and can be reached at