Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Psst. Hey buddy, wanna raise?

   While now isn't the time in the economy to ask for a raise, it never hurts to have a primer on it, espeically since we were just discussing the wherefores of how poorly paid we all are.  So, here’s the deal with pay raises: at most firms, the senior project managers get together, look over the firm’s financials, discuss and compare the performance and present pay rates of the office’s employees, and then figure out who gets how much of a raise that year.  Hence, if these managers and powers-that-be look at your experience level, performance, and pay, and compare it to everyone else around your experience level, and they decide that you’re getting a 5% raise that year, then 5% it is.  Having said that, you get 0% of the raises you ask for, so if you feel like you should get more than what you’re offered, then ask about the criteria for how raises are decided, and maybe you’ll have the ammo you need to make a counteroffer.

            Having the ammo is a different matter.  If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: bring your A-game every day that it’s possible—consistently high-quality performance will help you make a case, if need be, for a pay increase.  You have to be able to point to something specific: you completed the drawings for the X Project on your own, you co-chaired the office picnic and brought it in under budget, you passed the LEED exam, whatever.  A few ways to bring your A-game:

  • Be diligent about getting your hours for IDP or whatever internship accounting system you use.  Let project managers know what hours you still need (more often than once a year) so you can get done as fast as possible.
  • Pursue knowledge and accreditations whenever and wherever possible.  Study for, take, and pass the LEED exam.  Learn about and improve your skills on certain types of software, especially drawing and modeling software.  Look into classes on environmental concerns, building/project types, codes, etc.
  • Get active and volunteer where you can.  Serve on a studio jury for a nearby design school.  Offer to mentor high school interns in your office.  Work with Girl or Boy Scouts.  Serve on a local committee regarding some aspect of your profession which you find interesting.  Or start your own at your office—anything from a recycling or green program to a brown-bag lunch seminar series on hand-rendering or using a certain kind of software or a softball or bowling league.  Find ways to bring something extra to your firm.
  • View each task you’re assigned as a chance to learn something, anything.  Ask questions: what’s the purpose of this?  Who’s going to see this drawing, document, image?  What do we use this for?  Then, do the task right.
  • Always be on the lookout for things to do.  After your first few months in a workplace, you get a feel for how quickly you can do most things.  Make sure you ask for something else to do before you run out of things to do: “I have some flat files to clean out this morning, but I should be done with that by the end of lunch.  What can I help you with this afternoon?”


            There are two ways to see a significant jump in your salary from an architectural job: get licensed or change jobs.  I don’t know why the latter works so well in my profession, but it does.  I’ve seen people increase their salary anywhere from $4,000 to $20,000 by changing jobs.  But what helps you increase your pay whether you stay or go is the first option: getting licensed.

            I got licensed just as I reached the six-year mark in my profession, all at one firm.  As of that year, half of the increase in my salary since I started working in architecture could be attributed to getting licensed.  Allow me to repeat that: if you looked at the difference in my salary between when I started and at the end of the year in which I got licensed, half of the difference in pay was because I got licensed.  In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that ten months elapsed from the time I signed up for my first exam (of nine) to the moment I passed my last one; at the time I took the ARE, the average intern took about 23 months to pass all nine sections of the ARE.  Also, I was taking the exams during a really busy time at my office, in which I was working fifty to sixty hours a week during eight of the ten months that I was testing.  Hence, some of my huge jump in income was likely due not only to the fact that I got licensed, but that I did it so quickly and was able to balance work and testing.  When I tell other licensed architects how I got licensed, they usually spit out whatever they’re drinking and look at me like I must have been crazy.  Maybe I was, but I knew I just wanted to get done with it, work schedule be damned.

            Youngish, licensed architects are coveted in the relative scheme of things in the architectural profession.  Their relative newness to the profession means that they’re proficient in one or more types of drawing and modeling software as well as some other graphics software, like Photoshop.  Their licensure means that they’ve worked a certain number of years in the profession and jumped through some tough hoops, so they’re skilled enough to know how a building goes together, how to run a project in all its phases, and how to deal with clients and contractors.  A firm’s owners or top staff members feel more comfortable sending a licensed architect out to meet with owners and contractors than an intern, even if the architect and intern in question are the same age and have the same amount of professional experience.  Also, I should mention briefly here that being licensed allows you to start your own firm, if you’re into that sort of thing.

            It’s worth mentioning that there are older people, in their 40s and 50s, who are, shall we say, terminal interns.  Usually these people have been practicing for most of their lives and never took or finished the tests, or they’ve taken the tests but they keep failing some of them and get frustrated.  Ultimately, being a terminal intern is their only choice if they want to stay in their position and profession, but beware if this sounds like a pretty good deal to you: terminal interns hit an income ceiling.  It’s hard for an office to pay an unlicensed person more than a licensed person, as it devalues the hard work put into taking and passing the ARE.  So you hit an income limit, so what?  Going to another firm is how you get a raise, right?  Not if you’re over the age of 40 and unlicensed.  Again, it’s a better deal for most firms to pay a 35-year-old licensed architect the same (or even a little less) than what they’d pay a 50-year-old unlicensed intern.  Being unlicensed severely limits your employment options.  Being licensed opens a lot more doors for you.  This lesson is especially important for nontraditional architectural interns—those who changed majors or went to college after time spent in another career or being in the military.  Getting your hours, filing your paperwork, and diligently taking and passing the ARE is especially important for those folks.  Whether you’ve passed only one test or all but one test, good luck finding a job as a 45-year-old intern.

            Bottom lines here:

  • The two best ways to dramatically increase your income as an architect is to get licensed and/or change jobs.
  • Getting licensed makes changing jobs easier.
  • Getting licensed opens doors that are otherwise shut to you. Either get licensed or resolve yourself to the fact that those doors will shut as you age.  Ageism exists in architecture, sad but true.

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