As demand for architectural services picks up and competition for talent intensifies, architecture firms throughout Australia face increasing levels of challenge in terms of attracting and retaining the best and most suitable employees.

By any stretch of the imagination, new positions are becoming harder to fill. Vacancies for interior designers, architects and landscape architects, and urban and regional planners were higher in July than they have been for several years; they were up by 37 per cent, 26.6 percent and 24.6 per cent respectively compared with the same month last year, according to Department of Employment figures. Candidates – according to recruitment outfit Hays – are becoming more particular about their roles, while a shortage of quality candidates had made life ‘more challenging’ for practices, especially those wanting to recruit on a temporary basis.

Salaries, too, are rising. Around two-thirds of architecture and design firms in Australia are offering annual salary increases of three per cent or more according to an annual survey by the Association of Consulting Architects. Last year, only half were doing so.

With this in mind, recruiters say a number of strategies can pay dividends. As well offering benefits such as flexible working arrangements along with opportunities for technical challenge and career development (and, obviously, competitive levels of remuneration), these extend to creating an environment and culture in which people naturally want to work.

Adam Shapley, senior regional director of Hays Architecture, says it is important to create an ‘employee value proposition’ which talks about the firm’s values and culture as well as the rewards, opportunities and experience of working there, and to be active in communicating this through emerging mediums such as social media.

“By communicating what you stand for and the experience of working at your company, you’ll attract like-minded candidates who are a natural fit with your company and the way you do business,” he said.

Randstad employment market analyst Steve Shepherd agrees, saying the value for firms in using social media to demonstrate their pipeline of work as well as how they deliver on aspects such as work/life balance cannot be understated.

“What we see with companies who stand out as places to work is that they do a good job of conveying their employer brand to their target audience and they do this across a variety of mediums,” he said.  “So they don’t just focus on salary to attract staff they show how they meet their other needs as well by understanding the needs of the groups and demographic of the groups they are targeting.”

Shapley stresses that such measures are not limited to larger firms. Indeed, some smaller and medium-sized practices are adopting strategies of their own. One example is i2C, a 23-person planning and commercial and retail design practice with offices in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth which recently took out the 11th spot in this year’s BRW’s Best Place to Work Study in 2015 for companies with fewer than 100 staff.

Deciding around five years ago that it wanted to be known for a strong sense of culture as well as a rewarding place at which work, the firm set about offering flexible working hours and conditions, days off where birthdays fall on work days, extra days’ leave each year (for staff who have served five or more years) and contributions toward money employees spend on personal well-being such as through gym memberships. Seven individual words each describing core values of the practice have been decorated onto small white bowls which sit around the offices.

Just as important, much effort goes into ensuring recruitment processes deliver new hires who align with practice values. Rather than forwarding resumes, prospective employees are asked to call and leave messages which respond to questions about themselves and what they bring to the firm. Short-listed candidates subsequently attend a group interview session during which attitudes and behaviours are observed, with only two to three candidates advancing to the final stage of one-on-one interviews.

These efforts are paying off. Prospective new employees, i2C managing director Anthony Merlin says, are coming to the firm with a strong understanding of its culture and values. On some occasions, the practice has been able to retain staff despite not being able to fully match competing offers in terms of pay.

“We know that a couple of our team members have been offered more money elsewhere, and we haven’t been able to match that monetary-wise but we have been able to keep them here based on the culture,” Merlin said. “They have said to us – we want to stay here. If you just give me a little bit more and come part of the way, I will stick around because I love working here and I love the culture.”

Amongst design firms large and small, the battle for talent is intensifying. To win, practices will need proactive strategies and effort to set themselves apart.