Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hitting a moving target Part 2: the perils of the nontraditional intern

I mentioned in my last post that my friend and fellow architect who was frustrated with her boss' unclear expectations and standards is a little older than me. I recently turned 34, and I got licensed a few months shy of my 31st birthday. (You can do it faster; I procrastinated sending NCARB my completed IDP stuff. Wish I hadn't though--the hype surrounding the ARE is worse than the actual test.) I've been pondering on my friend's problem, and my conclusion as to the source of her frustration leaves me a little downhearted but wiser. The problem stems not just from the fact that her boss wouldn't be clear as to what was expected of her, but I believe that her age played a supporting role.

I wager that many of you reading this went right from high school to college to grad school and then to work, but some of you may be nontraditional students--got an undergraduate degree in another field first, worked in another field before architecture, or maybe even served in the military or took a couple of years off between high school and college. To my nontraditional intern readers, I tip my hat. Architecture is hard enough to do as a major and a profession, and it can be even harder when you find yourself a few years older than your colleagues in school, and then in the workplace. The extra few years in your age increases your firm's expectations of you--project managers will likely expect more from you because you've obviously worked before, whether in this field or in another or even in the military. They're looking for your maturity to come out and for you to take initiative and be that much better at your tasks. They expect you to make fewer mistakes and think things through more thoroughly and more quickly, because your previous experience has shown you the cost of not doing a good job.

These expectations are a double-edged sword, though. High expectations mean less room for error, and while it's hard for an employer to accept chronic mistakes and lapses, it's even less tolerated when that intern is in their thirties instead of their twenties. This condition is exacerbated when a nontraditional intern drags his or her feet about getting licensed, which is the situation my friend found herself in. When a project manager explains the qualities of a good intern to an employee in his mid-twenties, it feels like tutoring and leading a new generation. But when that same manager explains those same qualities to an intern in her late thirties or early forties, it feels like remedial training--"how can you not know this already?" I'm betting that's what happened to my friend, who found herself celebrating the big 4-0 without having passed the entire ARE.

My husband, also an architect, was a nontraditional intern. He worked for a couple of years and spent a few years in the military before going to architecture school, so he didn't join the architectural work force in earnest until he was about 30 years old. He and I took the ARE at the same time and passed all the sections at the same time, which meant that by the time I was the age he was when he started architecture, I was licensed. He got licensed in his late thirties, and not a moment too soon; he started a new job at which he managed interns in their mid forties and even early fifties. You read that correctly--there are interns out there who are old enough to be your parents, and they work for my husband. And every time he gives them feedback on a design or an idea or a detail, they roll their eyes. It bothers my husband a little bit, but he ultimately shrugs it off. He knows that if his office shut down tomorrow, he as a licensed architect would have a much easier time finding a new job than a forty- or fifty-something intern. Firms would rather hire someone younger who will work for less money (because they literally have less experience, but still enough to do the job) and--sad and rather illegal but true--younger folks have fewer obligations outside of work. Hiking trips and volunteer work can be skipped or put on hold, but PTA meetings and caring for elderly parents or sick children cannot. (Again, that reason for not hiring an older person is illegal, but I'm betting it still happens.)

I push all interns to get licensed as soon and as fast as they humanly can, but my advice is issued especially urgently to nontraditional interns. You have too much to lose and everything to gain by keeping pace with or even passing by your younger peers.

1 comment:

  1. lulu,
    how did you go about studying for the ARE? any tips and tricks for us newbies? any good reference materials we should be aware of? i know everybody has diff study habits, but how much time did you put into it?