‘My architecture friends are all still in New York or London’

The lack of jobs in Ireland after she graduated made emigrating inevitable for Rachael Jennings

 

This article forms part of a new series for Irish Times Abroad on the opportunities worldwide (and in Ireland) for Irish construction workers. If you would like to contribute your own story about moving abroad or returning home to work in construction, email abroad@irishtimes.com or tell us about your experience in our Irish Construction Workers and Emigration Survey.  

Rachael Jennings is a 29-year-old architect and designer from Old Kilcullen in Co Kildare. After graduating from architecture in UCD and the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany at the height of the recession, she found it difficult to get work in Ireland, and so decided to move to the US.

Why did you choose the US?

I had spent a couple of summers in New York while in college and loved it, so when the year long J1-visa became available after I graduated, I jumped on the opportunity. I had such an exciting, life-changing experience in the city as a student that I thought it was worth giving it a go as a “grown-up”.

It wasn’t entirely because of lack of jobs in Ireland that I left, I was also seeking adventures; but the limited job options made the decision inevitable. I went by myself, but a few people I had studied with were already over here so it was a pretty easy transition. A couple of friends had headed over a few days before me, so I had some moral support when I arrived for my initial job and apartment hunt.

Was it hard to find a job in New York?

I didn’t need to do any additional courses but it can be tricky to get a foot in the door with a company that you would be excited to work with. Most of us probably asked for less money than our US counterparts, which made us appealing candidates. Cash flow was a bit challenging as a result; New York is an expensive city.

What do you do now?

I work for AvroKO, a design and concept firm that specialises in boutique interiors for hospitality. A lot of people assume I came over here to design skyscrapers but I’ve never had any interest in high rise structures. I love architecture that is all about the human scale, using design to enrich people’s experience of space.

The company also owns and operates their own bars and restaurants, an industry I’ve always been really interested in. The architects and designers get a free “shift drink” after work too. I work with a very creative bunch of people, and the mix of disciplines makes it even more interesting.

My work on a daily basis depends on what stage a project is at. The creation of a strong concept is very important for us so in the early stages we spend a lot of time researching the architectural history of an area, or an specific art movement, and this research becomes a visual road map for the project. Another day I could be in a hard hat, sketching construction details on site. Every day is a bit different which keeps it interesting.

Do you think you would have had the same opportunities professionally if you had stayed in Ireland?

Definitely not. The sheer size of New York means there is more stuff being designed and built, and more room to specialise. It is still an exciting time for the industry in Ireland though and it’s really starting to recover. More people are getting jobs. Irish firms like Grafton Architects and O’Donnell Tuomey are really making waves on the world stage, and it makes me so very proud to see that happening too.

How does working in architecture in New York compare to Ireland?

It’s difficult to compare accurately as there is a wide range in both countries depending on where you work. Architecture is rarely a 9-5 job anywhere it seems. I’ve definitely worked a few late nights here, but have heard similar tales from my friends in Ireland. There is probably more opportunity to get promoted and increase your salary here than at home. It’s also possible to increase your salary here by moving jobs; I can’t imagine it’s that easy back home.

Are there many other Irish architects there?

Yes, there are many young Irish architects who have graduated within a few years of me, which has led to the development of a decent sized network here. There are lots of job opportunities for people early in their careers. People seem to either love or hate New York though so I would definitely recommend figuring out which of those camps you’re in before committing.

What’s life like outside work?

I cycle everywhere (weather permitting) which is a fun way to see parts of the city you’d miss being underground. I’ve also gone on some great adventures upstate and to the outer boroughs. Of course, there are so many fantastic bars and restaurants that I indulge in on a regular basis, not to mention all the museums and galleries. There’s always something fun and different to do. I’ve also become more involved in yoga and meditation since living here; it’s important to find that balance.

What are your future plans?

Despite how much I love it here I wouldn’t stay forever. I’ll probably wander back towards Europe in the next few years.

Do you think the construction sector is recovering in Ireland?

It definitely seems to be. My studio here is even designing a hotel in Dublin so that must be a good sign. There are people at home with jobs now, but I’d still say the majority are either here in New York, or in London.

This article forms part of a new series for Irish Times Abroad on the opportunities worldwide (and in Ireland) for Irish construction workers. If you would like to contribute your own story about moving abroad or returning home to work in construction, email abroad@irishtimes.com or tell us about your experience in our Irish Construction Workers and Emigration Survey.  

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