In this virtual panel discussion, five eminent lighting designers and one highly respected representative from manufacturing discuss the challenges of recruiting young lighting designers and then propose a wide range of actions our industry can take. Beyond the efforts of IALD and IESNA to offer information, invitations and funds to interested college students and educators, the lighting design profession needs to work individually and in coordinated actions to raise the profile of an exciting industry in flux.
What do you think are the greatest challenges to recruiting young people for the architectural lighting design profession?
DAWN HOLLINGSWORTH: The profession is still widely invisible (no pun intended), and students tend to fall into it after they have started down another path like interior design. It also takes a mentor or a particular professor to get a student excited about lighting design.
LARRY FRENCH: On the West Coast, in particular, there are no educational programs that offer a degree in architectural lighting design; with the exception of a certificate program. If a young person expresses interest in architectural lighting design, the best we can do is direct them to a few teachers who are trying to educate or send them off to an expensive program in Colorado, Pennsylvania or New York City.
CHIP ISRAEL: It is very competitive right now to find lighting-trained staff. The few university programs that provide an intensive lighting curriculum begin interviewing in September, a full 9 months before students actually graduate. The universities, and peers, pressure students to accept a position early, which prevents them from evaluating all of their options. On top of that, for a smaller design firm it is really hard to accurately project your workload and staffing needs that far in advance.
JIMALEE BENO: The biggest challenge remains the lack of awareness of the profession. The International Year of Light was an exciting opportunity for us to increase awareness of the profession, but the average high school student is simply not familiar with the career opportunities in lighting.
DEBRA FOX: Architectural lighting designers come from varied backgrounds – landscape design, architecture, engineering, interiors, theater lighting, etc. – and each of these paths has merit. Students may have completed a course or two in lighting, and just brushed over the basics enough to loosely specify fixtures. Most just don’t realize there’s so much more to it than that.
LARRY FRENCH: There are lots of firms looking for qualified hires and almost no one available. I wish that the many theatrical lighting design programs would inform their students that there is an alternate path.
What are promising solutions (and new ideas) to identify, inspire and motivate millennials to embrace lighting design as a profession?
LARRY FRENCH: The practice is inherently “green” as energy is at the heart of lighting. Now that the Internet of Things is getting up to full speed, data management is going to become very important. It’s a rapidly expanding career.
DAWN HOLLINGSWORTH: If one had to generalize about millennials, it seems they want interesting and challenging work, but their work isn’t their personal identity. You have to be visible to inspire. I think the industry does a great job talking to ourselves, but we need to start talking to the public to show value, expertise and impact. When you can show the deeper meaning in what you do, then it will inspire the next generation to follow.
DEBRA FOX: Getting out to the local colleges and getting involved with juniors and seniors in architectural and interiors programs (especially helping out with end-of-semester design critiques) really helps get the word out. I did this recently, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Most of them had never taken such a deep dive into the lighting aspect of their projects, and, up until then, many weren’t even aware that becoming a lighting designer was an option.
CHIP ISRAEL: It takes an investment of time by the design professionals. At Lighting Design Alliance, we all spend a lot of time trying to support the instructors, so that they will inspire the students. We actively participate in any event that we are invited to. This could include office tours, critiques, sponsoring events or trips, inviting them to local IES section events, doing portfolio reviews at the IES or IALD Annual Conferences, etc. Free pizza ensures their attendance when we do local lectures. The more that they know about the design side, and see all of the great projects that lighting designers do, they will see our profession is more than calculations and lux levels.
JIMALEE BENO: Yes, we should broaden our net from known lighting schools and target a few schools with strong theater, interior design and architecture programs. For these schools we should connect as many students as possible to the lighting design profession via events and conferences. Internships and mentoring can connect students more intensely – one-on-one.
DEBRA FOX: Many of the large local universities have career fairs, where you can get face time with students and make them aware of the architectural lighting design industry. A successful architectural lighting designer is competent in both the art and the science of the field, and this can be an attractive combination for students that like a little design in their engineering, and vice versa.
What group(s) or individuals do you think should take the initiative in developing and implementing solutions?
DEBRA FOX: This probably would fall to the private sector, as we know what skills the position requires. By connecting with educational institutions, we can inform the curriculum – what it should include, especially with technology changing so rapidly.
LARRY FRENCH: There are several obvious educational institutions that would be candidates. Some have already tried. The joint venture from the IALD, in partnership with industry, that resulted in Project Candle at Penn State is a good example of an idea that worked. The difficulty is finding enough “champions” and real seed money to get something started.
DAWN HOLLINGSWORTH: The design community has to take responsibility for recruiting and developing professional designers. There is too much reliance on academic institutions to “deliver” qualified lighting designers to the profession when there are more choices than ever for a graduate to consider. Talent comes in all forms. Aptitude, desire and critical thinking are just as important as knowing how to work with AutoCAD or Photoshop.
JIMALEE BENO: Growing our industry should be a commitment supported throughout the industry. But as an IALD Education Trust board member, I believe the trust should lead the strategic direction. All of us who have benefited from the profession must reinvest. A coordinated effort will make us more successful.
CHIP ISRAEL: It is no single person’s or organization’s responsibility; it’s all of us.
Many thanks to John Fox of Fox & Fox Design LLC for kickstarting this discussion. It was inspired by his March 2016 column in LD+A magazine, along with a conversation with Larry French at Lightfair.
Note that the participants in this roundtable answered the questions independently by email. Their contributions were edited and reviewed by the group. I thank them for their thoughtful input.
What do you think? Please add your recruiting problems, ideas and current outreach activities to the discussion below.
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