Friday, November 20, 2009

Lulu's Mailbag: Is our profession in trouble?

I received a great email from Matt Arnold, the architect who also runs Stairway to Architecture (a great site--I love his "Dear Boss" letter). At the end of his provocative and interesting email, Matt asked: As I look at the landscape surrounding schools, internship, and practice, I'm very distressed for our profession. I'm wondering what your perspective is.

his email was so interesting that I felt compelled to turn my response into a post. (Matt, I will also email you back personally.) My short answer to your email is this: to me, the glass is half full, but I'm not sure what it's full of just yet.

Matt's website points out that though roughly 7,000 graduates from architecture schools each year, it appears that only about 4,000 are getting licensed each year. That means that we're not replacing the licensed architects that retire, die, or leave the profession to start a new career or maybe just hop in and out of rehab. While I've always known that in the back of my wee little head, I'm especially startled by that fact nowadays. Between the economy being in the tank and the continued hazing that interns endure (but probably not at Matt's firm--the "Dear Boss" letter makes me want to work there, even if he doesn't like headphones), I believe our profession is going to lose some really good people, and that 3,000-person gap will become wider not just in quantity but also in quality.

The quality of interns--and therefore architects--is of utmost concern to me. Project managers and bosses, in general, continue to give interns a "you need to pay your dues" attitude instead of truly integrating them into all levels of the practice, not just the drawing and the occasional site visit to go field measure something. There are managers who believe that because they were hazed they must haze the new kids in the office infuriate me. News flash: we don't have time to relegate an intern to three-plus years of CAD Jockey or Revit Jockey status--s/he needs to understand specs, go to meetings, deal with consultants and clients, help you put together proposals, and so on. The future of your firm and indeed your profession relies on this.

Matt mentions that his research shows that the average length of internship in New York (the state, I presume) is 11 years. There may be several reasons for this, but I'm betting that one of the reasons is that firms who need good staff will pay top dollar in a town that has a high cost of living and lots of competition for the best interns. And oddly enough, those who do this are on my list as well. Yes, we all know that interns (and architects in general, up and down the ranks) are underpaid, but when you pay an intern mad amounts of cash, where is the incentive to take and pass the ARE? So interns spend years not getting licensed, just making money hand over fist, and suddenly they find themselves unemployed in this economy, pushing 40, and unlicensed. You know how that concerns me. My husband has a friend who is a good architect with coveted design skills. He hopped through firms in a major city for most of the 2000s (about one every 12-24 months) until he was making $82,000 a year, unlicensed. Guess who's unemployed now? (And the fact that he still complains about "how poorly architects are paid" makes me want to stick a drafting pencil in his eye, but I'll spare you that rant.)

My hope for the future of architecture as a profession is that we do a few things, primarily:
  1. Stop talking, designing, writing, and speaking for other architects and start doing all those things for the public, for average everyday people who use the spaces we make and don't understand what the word "architectonic" means and don't really care. As I've said before, architecture the profession is about everything but you. Remove your ego from what you design.
  2. Shift our thinking from an industrial-era workplace to an information-age workplace. Interns are not disposable, replaceable widgets--they're people. Consider the advantages of a ROWE workplace.
  3. Bridge the gap between the generations and their skill sets. Managers need to include interns in all facets of running a project and running a firm--sharing that knowledge is the only way to truly gain their respect. Interns need to include managers in how technology is changing the way we produce our work--in many ways for the better. For example, many of today's project managers that worked in CAD back in the day have no idea how Revit works today, and many of their demands on interns are based on how CAD used to work. Revit solves many of the problems we had in CAD, but it also makes a few things more difficult.
That's a short list, but I think it sums up my outlook on the profession so far. What about you? How does the profession look--and feel--to you?


  1. Lulu,

    I completely agree with your take. I'm a recent graduate from a good architecture school and I feel trying to navigate the distance between what school was and what the workplace is is like walking through some vast wasteland with nobody around to help you get to where you need to go. Architects and those higher up who have the experience really need to realize what they are doing to the profession. We as interns new to this world, who really want to succeed in it, need help in figuring out how to! The reason only 60% of those graduates actually getting licensed is because of the very reason you are bringing up. Some firms are actually very very good at helping interns with their IDP and understanding the need for these people to develop these skills for our future...but they are few and far between. In our economy, its really easy to get into a job just for the money completely realizing your firms attention to your own development will be somewhat ignored (the situation I find myself in). The question I have is how long is it going to take for people to fully realize this especially the ones that need to? Will a day come when its too late? I cant imagine so, but then again who knows.

  2. What exactly is the statistic of architects retiring from the profession each year?

    My recommendation for anyone trying to make progress and complete the IDP is to find a mentor outside of their firm to help. A mentor can really help you find a way to get training in the difficult IDP training areas. I realised how important this is a little to late myself.

    I thought that I didn't need a mentor. I worked at a firm that helped train interns for two years and then I changed jobs to another firm that was closer to home. What a mistake that was. The firm that was closer to home didnot assist me with IDP requirements. They didn't let me work with my IDP supervisor either. I tried volunteering for assignments in IDP training areas that I needed experience in and the firm denied me this experience. At my one year review, the firm said that I was more concerned about my IDP requirements than my productivity. Subsequently, I lost my job.

    A mentor can help provide you with guidance on how to deal with these situations. I have since been meeting with one. Now, the only problem I have is finding a new job with the terrible economy.

  3. Demographically, Architects are in a decline in comparison to the total population (we've increased by 4.8% since 1999, while the population has grown by more than 12%. The population of architects each year is published by NCARB and there is a chart of it at (look at Table 1).

    Data from Nebraska (just released) shows that average internship there is almost identical to NY (State) in 2009. (also charted at my site) I expect data from Oregon soon, and will be very interested to see what it shows.

    Lulu, this site is wonderful, you are working on a fabulous book here. Can't wait to read the next chapters...

  4. Thanks to all of you for commenting! The pathway to licensure is a two-way street--both the intern and the firm have to meet each other in some way and take responsibility for the process, or this profession will become obsolete faster than we think.