Reframing the Stats About Architecture

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Architecture press is buzzing with recent Bureau of Labor Statistics reports on unemployment and self-employment figures for those in the architecture field. The media have taken this data and made a plentitude of fearful predictions about the dark future of the architecture profession: there are more too many graduates, seemingly few positions, higher educational requirements and less prestige for the profession as a whole. They paint a somewhat dismal picture, both for those entering the field and those in mid-career, who are looking to start a firm.

The BLA Statistics and a recent study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education offer the following as signs of difficulty and doom:

  • Licensing requirements (for architects) include not only a professional degree in architecture (4-6 years of schooling), but also at least 3 years of practical work, training, and passing all divisions of the Architect Registration Examination
  • Architecture graduates face stiff competition, especially for jobs in the most prestigious firms
  • Undergraduate architecture students are facing 13.9 percent unemployment rates
  • About 21 percent of architects are self-employed—almost 3 times the proportion for all occupations

While these statistics could take one down a road of despair, there is more to the story. The reality is that the architecture field has naturally changed with a changing world. All professions are undergoing a profound evolution on several fronts: demographic, education and economic. These changes are not all bad, and actually may provide the basis for optimism.

Demographics

“Architecture was historically a gentleman’s profession,” said Michael Porter, AIA during an interview we conducted for Success by Design. He went on to say, “Even as recently as 50 years ago, architects were almost always male, came from wealthy families and pursued the career as a symbol of philanthropy more than for financial gain.”

In recent decades, the bias against women and minorities has lifted, and now many architecture programs have almost equal male to female populations. Social standing is no longer a prerequisite to success in the architecture filed. This is positive development that we ought to embrace. Of course, the numbers of graduates has increased, thus putting pressure on employment prospects, but the fact that the architecture profession has embraced greater diversity should be applauded. If it is difficult to match these greater numbers with existing jobs, what can be done to help them develop careers in adjacent industries? Changes in how students and post-graduates are trained provides the key.

Education

MIT Studio, photo by Leo Shieh

There are two aspects to think about. First, while architecture has seemingly raised the bar by moving most programs to five or six years of schooling, together with post-graduate training and practical work experience, architecture is not all that dissimilar from the medical field or legal field whose graduates also face stiff competition for the larger firm jobs and require not only extended schooling, but rigorous preparation to pass an exam that gives them entre in one’s chosen field. Ensuring that those entering a profession, which comes with significant responsibility, are prepared is also a good thing.

Having said that, especially in these uncertain economic times, architecture schools can do more to prepare their students for a career. Universities have done a fine job on the technical front to provide architects with the skills needed to design. Unfortunately, however, there is a glaring blind spot on the business side. Most students leave with a single course in professional practices, at best. Rarely do they learn about marketing, client relations, strategic thinking or business development, which are the core skills that can set them apart, make them invaluable hires, and prepare them to run their own business down the road.

Graduates are also hard pressed to learn these skills on the job. Depending on the culture, size and infrastructure of the firms who employ them in their early career, they may never get access to this information. Unfortunately, the AIA offers slim continuing education in the areas of professional practice. Recent graduates and those seeking a career change are left with little more than networking events and conventions as resources to discuss business challenges and meet peers. What else can they do to try to prepare? Inspiration is an important tool.

Economic

Architecture Billing Index - www.calculatedriskblog.com

The entire world is suffering a recession and employment is down across the board. This is an invitation for architecture schools to consider how to better prepare their students with business tools and real world experience. During my book research, I met with leaders like Art Gensler, Steven Ehlich and Lauren Rottet. We did not talk about their design philosophy, but rather about their approach to their businesses. Our discussion ran the gamut from how they started their companies (literally, who paid rent and how did they get clients) to how they survived the inevitable recessions and challenges that affected their particular niche.

Rottet points to diversification in terms of the type of work they take, as well as where throughout the world they pursue work, as ways her firm has stayed strong. Gensler took on the work no one wanted (interiors) and built relationships with those clients that made his firm known international. Ehrlich has arranged his firm atelier style and consciously keeps the decision-making democratic. He also acknowledges that his two partners have different skill sets, which helps the business run better on all fronts.

Like many of the other entrepreneurs, in professions and industries across the board, who I have interviewed over the years, the architects profiled in Success by Design had to figure it out on their own by making mistakes, being proactive and testing ideas. Elisa Garcia points to the value of having a strong mentor, while Barry Berkus, ever the maverick, pursued modular housing and design build before either were mainstream. Allison Williams, a talented designer, knew she would need business skills if she wanted to grow her own company. Williams sought colleagues that could teach her how to develop fees, write contracts, staff an office and use various software to get the firm up and running.

This drive, curiosity and willingness to learn skills beyond core architecture are what made these folks navigate the unknown and excel through both recessions and steep competition.

We should take a second look at the statistic that 21% of architects run their own shop. Rather than portray it as a bad thing, why not improve undergraduate education to cultivate these future entrepreneurs? Why not introduce more students and recent graduates to the stories of those who have found success? This is a critical time for practitioners to seek advice from other freelancers and business owners.

All professions evolve. While it may appear that the basic foundation of the architecture profession has shifted seismically, current students, recent graduates and even those seeking a mid-career change all have much to learn from and be inspired by architects such as these. Understanding how a diverse group of architects have grown successful businesses of different types will help those struggling in the current environment to do the same.

Cite: Kennedy, Jenn. "Reframing the Stats About Architecture" 17 Jan 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 20 Dec 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=200761>
  • jeb

    these statistics are certainly a cause for concern. far too many women entering the field.

  • Andrew

    It seems like any use of stock photos to illustrate an article about architectural practice immediately undercuts the argument being made.

    • Sean

      Andrew I agree. I’m close to becoming licensed, run my own firm, and look like no one in any of these pictures or the pictures celebrating any firm the AIA uplifts with praise. I would like to know exactly what these people definition is of “diversity” is.

      • http://www.archdaily.com David Basulto

        Andrew & Sean,

        I selected the photos for this article, not Jenn. I just changed them so this doesn’t undermine the quality of Jenn article and we can focus on the important aspects that should be discussed.

  • Mike

    “architecture is not all that dissimilar from the medical field or legal field whose graduates also face stiff competition for the larger firm jobs and require not only extended schooling, but rigorous preparation to pass an exam that gives them entre in one’s chosen field” – major difference is the significantly higher hourly rate for later make-up for the short term struggles in comparison to Architecture.

    • David Fano

      That is an important point but I think an entrepreneurial spirit would be a huge boost to the profession. This is great article.

      • http://www.archdaily.com David Basulto

        Totally agree with you David. It would be great if you guys could share your experience with our readers :)

  • M_Bolaism

    “These changes are not all bad, and actually may provide the basis for optimism.” Extremely reassuring. I’m pleased that optimism ‘might’ be a realistic expectation in my life’s work.

  • boots

    on the contrary, i think the stock photos are brilliant. check out that sick model!

  • Keith

    I believe that the problem has to do with the diminished roll architects are playing in the construction process. This is particularly true in the residential market where builders, interior designers, kitchen and bath designers and the like are all offering services that the architect used to provide. In fact, clients don’t understand the roll of the architect in the process other than as some unnecessary high priced luxury for the rich client. The AIA has done little to stem this tide and the profession is evaporating.

    • marko

      I agree 100%. In my area hiring an architect first then finding a contractor to bid is obsolete and has been for a goo 15 years. In the residential market each town has go-to builders who deliver a great product and can guarantee the final price up front. While they utilize architects, it’s a diminished role as a sub contractor and often never meet the client personally.

    • Luke

      I 100% agree with Keith, sounds like he is talking from experience. You just have to look a spec home websites, they treat the design process like getting Macca’s, which I have been a part in my earlier year, vowed never to go back. They offer huge salaries to designers and give the design illterate public what they want. Do you want fryes with that? But rather than thow you hands up and look to blame I think some of the other useful posts hold the key, ie. effectivley evolving the profession to what the consumer demands and your business can sustain. Spec homes are a new thing, in 50 years when they are falling apart physically and start to effect ocupants physiologically I believe the fad will die and the bottom end of the market til the top will value good inteligent design and flush imitators out of the market

  • marko

    The quality of architects entering the field is greatly diminished due to increased length of education, and I use the term education loosely. A 4 year used to prepare an architect for a solid, technically useful career as a construction design professional which in turn increased the value of the architecture. Often times an architecture firm was able to complete the entire building from engineering the structural, mechanical s and design to construction supervision onsite, and accepted the total responsibility of design. The the risk taker went the rewards. Today, architects merely record the design decisions and systems agreed upon by the group, hence the lowering of the architect’s value in the process. Less risk equates less reward. Lets face it, education at architecture school while long and laborious, is not very difficult. Theres significantly less engineering and construction knowledge ( if any ) being taught. Why would someone pay top dollar for a diminished product? If I as client read my AIA contract stating architect is not responsible for this or that, then why would I pay them more? Ultimately the contractor has accepted the most risk and hence earns the most on the team.

  • Craig VanDevere

    The article brings up some very interesting points. However the the stock photos used really do not exemplfy how diverse the profession should become with the exception of possibly gender. IMO

    • http://www.archdaily.com David Basulto

      Craig,

      Please see my answer to Andrew above, and thanks for your interest. Now we can focus on the important aspects of this article.

  • http://nestiv.com Ella Stelter

    While I think stating that the current statistics are cause for optimism is off, architects should be rethinking the way they do business.

    I first started architecture school during that misleading period between the dot com crash and the recession. Even then I could tell something was amiss and used my studies to explore what different business models would mean financially as well as their design implications.

    Today I am a registered architect working full-time outside the profession. This actually gives me some options I wouldn’t have had inside the profession, and I recently founded Nestiv, an online architectural marketplace.

    While Keith & marko are correct about the diminished role that architects play in the housing market, he leaves out that they are only involved in, at best, 25% of new home construction. There are many ways in which architects need to improve the profession, but can we really complain when we do so little to expand our market? Sure architects would say they want to work on more homes, but the current models makes them totally inaccessible.

  • FG

    One of the problems that I see is the schools, eager for cash, are educating too many people for too few positions (not just architecture of course, but particularly egregious with the small demand in the profession to start with). People are going back to school thanks to the economy, but there’s no telling whether the jobs will begin to appear by the time they graduate, I’m guessing not…

    Diversity won’t on it’s own make the profession stronger or weaker – most architects still come from middle/upper middle class backgrounds (all ethnicities) and likely always will, being an artistic/esoteric profession and not directly seen today as a “helping” profession (nor a lucrative one, which many people who are moving up socially or have done so will be looking keenly at due to their perceived ability to acquire the material trappings of success) will deter many minorities (I recall seeing a few years ago that the bulk of black registered architects lived in the DC area and the majority of them worked for HUD – this may have been anecdotal rather than factual though).

  • Matthew Claus

    As a recent graduate with a BA in Architecture it appears most places are only hiring individuals who hold a masters degree. What exactly does a masters degree provide me with over the numerous internships and oversea’s work experience I have gained? Are interns being hired as future architects or just someone to do “the job”?

  • Sean

    FG, valid statment, but I had a conversation with my cousin about that very concern, (schools pulling in their quota). If you look at it, most Universities were pulling in there typical amount of student intrest. The problem is the tech and other for profit schools punching out students too who are willing to do the grunt work for less than a person with a Masters degree. Then those graduates will go out into the industry and undercut those with experience and degrees.

    But overall Jennifer is correct. When I got laid off, I figured the education that I received from my school was enough to start my own firm…, wrong. Unless you pick up the Pro Practice book, and or other books related, and read though them yourself to understand, you find yourself in over your head. The main thing they don’t really push is architectural office management and true project management.

    As far as the less than 1% african american visual impact and choice of work, in most cases, from what I’ve seen, heard, and experienced, we’re the last to get hired and the first to get cut loose. So in the case of seeing most of them working for HUD, in order for them to do what they love and pay bills, they might’ve chosen an area that is still close to architecture that was stable enough economically as well as giving them some sort of fulfillment. Others, like me, are forced to start their own practice, but thats across the ethnic board too now. (Just my opinion)

  • Tony

    In Australia we have apparently averted the impending financial doom of the greater western world, however as an Architectural Graduate here I would estimate that between 15-25% of my Graduate colleagues are un-employed or are working in another field. Graduates are exploited because firms know they are in a position of power with so-many Architects looking for work…. not to mention the increased numbers of ex-pats returning and Europeans effected by the EURO situation showing up by the plane load in all business sectors by the day.

    • jeb

      i think that’s a fairly healthy statistic seeing as though 15-25% of architecture graduates probably don’t deserve jobs. Its natures ways of weeding out the ones who slipped through school, when they shouldn’t have.

  • http://www.garciaarchitects.com Elisa Garcia

    I have been in the industry for over 20 years and had a very successful firm for almost 10 years. I learned the business side of the practice from my parents, from the large architectural firm I previously worked at, and from mentors who owned large practices. Yet, in these times, even that is not enough. What is most frustrating is that most potential clients these days want to pay so little for services. It’s simply now worth the liability and high cost of insurance for so little income. Project Managers who “oversee” or “coordinate” architects and contractors can charge $200/hour, but licensed architects are lucky to make $50/hour in this economy (and even in the best economy it was less than $200/hour). That does not make economic sense when the least expensive insurance costs about $1,000/month and it comes with a 10-year commitment. The architects that are bad business people, don’t know how to manage or negotiate contracts, and work for peanuts have brought the entire industry to this point. The AIA is not to blame. Individuals need to take responsibility to educate themselves. I know plenty of architects who have gone back to school to get their MBA or sought out business mentors.