For many young architects the biggest complaint of 2012 has been insufficient pay in exchange for hard work and long hours under the guise of an internship. As if graduating with a degree in architecture is not grueling enough, NCARB, the US architectural licensing board also requires three years (amounting to thousands of hours) of training under a licensed architect, followed by a seven-part exam. Becoming an architect takes an exceptional amount of commitment, time and money. College graduates are already shaking under the weight of student loans and a stunted economy and job market; but what makes matters worse is that architecture as a profession has gained a reputation for exploiting recent graduates by hiring them as interns with little or no compensation.
2013 can be the year to turn this trend around. Is the architectural profession willing to make this resolution?
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The definition of an internship depends on who you ask. For all intents and purposes, it is an extension of one’s education – practical training on the job with a professional within the field. Theoretically, it is an opportunity to learn the skills of working within the building industry. Architecture School trains students to think theoretically and philosophically about designing space. Whether the school you attended focused on design or building construction, it is likely that you never learned to navigate the building code or zoning regulations or the process of filing drawings, or negotiating with clients, contractors, and suppliers. Anyone practicing architecture knows that it requires far more than a talent for design; it takes business management skills and more knowledge than an architectural education at any accredited school can give.
With that said, practical training and exams are pertinent to maintaining the integrity of the field and producing capable and talented professionals that carry the title of “Architect”. But at what cost to its students? I don’t need to mention the inflated cost of a college education in the US, but at $40,000 a year over five years, that adds up to a substantial amount of student loans and debt. So when we finally graduate with a degree in hand it is jarring to see the number of “job openings” labeled internship that promise little more than a stipend that can pay for your commute and lunch.
So what defines an internship? Well, technically the US Department of Labor does not regulate work categorized as an internship. If someone agrees to do work for free, which oftentimes is the vague territory that internships are far under, then the Department of Labor does not get involved. However, it does have a set of criteria that identifies the difference between a trainee (intern) and an employee. First of all, the training must be equivalent to the work one would be doing at a vocational school or academic institution. The internship cannot replace the work that would be done by a paid employee and the employer should not benefit directly from the work done by a trainee. In fact, the document also states that the training could impede the work of an employer. Ultimately, there must be an agreement between the employer and the trainee that stipulates an understanding that paid employment is not guaranteed at the end of the training and that the trainee would not be paid for their time.
So in case you were wondering if running errands for your employer or working long hours with no compensation to complete a project because the firm cannot afford to pay you was a legitimate internship? It isn’t.
In numerous other fields, new employees are paid during their training, so why should it be any different in architecture? Not paying interns or passing off a job as an internship to avoid paying a salary de-legitimizes the degree that students painstakingly earn. The building industry took a major hit during the recession, but that does not entitle the profession to bar the way for paid employment. An entry-level position now ironically requires previous experience. Architecture as a profession has one of the highest unemployment rates in any industry, topping at 13.9% for recent college graduates according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. The bottom line is that too many recent graduates are willing to work for free to gain experience and exposure in their chosen field when few options are available. And too many firms are very comfortable with taking advantage of that fact.
But maybe things really are changing. States like Oregon and California are standing up to employers and have begun investigating internships that do not comply with the Department of Labor’s standards, going as far as to fine employers in cases where exploitation is legitimate. The wage and hour division has begun stepping up enforcement across the country. It is fair to say that many interns are afraid to step up and file complaints against their employers, so as not to stir up trouble in their field or risk losing an opportunity at a paid position; but fortunately, some schools are backing their students as well, refusing to post jobs on their schools’ listings that offer no compensation. (Source: New York Times, The Unpaid Intern, Legal or Not)
The unfortunate fact is that the process of gaining experience in the field of architecture often involves the compromise of working without compensation because so much of the practical knowledge of the profession is learned on the job. So is it a failing of schools for not producing competitive employees for the field? Or can we still hold employees accountable for not providing legitimate compensation for work?
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