Monday, October 25, 2010

Resisting the pull of tunnel vision

Longtime Intern 101 readers know that both my husband and I are architects. I hear couples say that they don't talk about work at home, but I think they're full of it: how do you spend a third of your life somewhere and never talk about it at some point during the other two-thirds? He and I do share about what's going on at our workplaces, and I generally like it because I learn from him and occasionally he learns from me. (It might make for boring pillow talk, but at least we understand the severity of each others' work problems without the other having to go into a long, drawn out explanation of the problem.) Recently, he came home absolutely furious, having spent all day trying to solve a problem. It turns out that the problem was the locations of some exterior windows in his building. The windows were located such that they worked (kinda) for the exterior, but they made wall placement and ceiling layout and soffit locations really problematic in the interior finish of the project. "Someone," he fumed, "spent a lot of time during DDs and CDs trying to make those windows and ceilings work, and they never said one thing about how it wasn't really working. And now I discover the problem in the field, now that the windows are literally set in stone."

It can be hard sometimes to bring up a problem to a project manager, especially when that problem feels like it should be something that you should be able to handle. After all, it's just a ceiling layout, or a pipe going through an exterior wall, or whatever, and you've been working in architecture for two, three, five, seven years. So if you kill a tree and print out the problematic area in question to ask for help in solving it, you look like you don't know how to do your job, right?


Asking for help with something in the drawings is very rarely a bad idea. First of all, if you've been struggling with something for a while and can't make it work, it's possible that all you need are some fresh eyes on the problem. I've wrestled for two hours with making rooms fit into an existing space (since space layout is something I do a lot as a licensed architect), and suddenly one of my bosses looks at my layout and scribbles in the solution in five minutes. I feel like a goober, but it's only because I've been too close to the problem for too long. Furthermore, by showing your project manager/architect/job captain the problem you're dealing with, it may jog his/her memory regarding something super-important: we removed this area from our scope, so you really don't need to try to work it out; oh yeah, there was something important going on in this area that I need to call the engineers about; wow, you're right, we can't specify this or that product because it won't work in that area; and so on. Sharing the problem allows it 1) to be solved sooner or 2) to get the team to realize that something big is happening, or is wrong.

That second scenario is what happened on my husband's job. The project was so big that there were two groups on the team: one worked on the core and shell, and the other worked on the interior tenant finish. The problem is that each group (including its interns) got tunnel vision and forgot that their scope has to work with the other team's scope. Core-and-shell and tenant-infill have to work together, and it's easy to forget that and just plug away at whatever problem comes up, thinking "well, the other group has to have what it has here, and I just have to make do." As long as nothing is built yet, most things can change, at least a little. And in the case of my husband's building, had someone printed out the clunky, weird-looking ceiling plan and showed it to him, he could have called together the infill group and the core-and-shell group and found a solution...when it didn't cost any money to do so.

It's easy to get focused on your role in architecture, both as a problem-solving architect-in-training and as the intern-who-documents-everything-having-to-do-with-this-part-of-the-building. Just because it's your job to work out the exterior walls or the vertical circulation or whatever doesn't mean that you work in a vacuum, and just because you do know something about how buildings go together doesn't mean that you know everything or even have to know everything. Pulling back and remembering how your work fits into the overall project--and then looking at that overall project--helps reduce that tunnel vision that can happen when you work on a smaller piece of a bigger project. Reaching out of your role and your scope and asking questions or for help to solve a problem reduces it even more. It's almost symbolic of how we do what we do: all the parts and pieces of a building make it what it is, and all the people involved in designing and documenting that building allow it to be built smoothly and solidly.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Saving for a rainy day, part 2 of 2

If you have a job right now or have managed to get a job this year, first let me say WOOHOO!!! Things are very slowly turning around economy-wise in my area, and hopefully they are doing the same in yours. I'm always heartened when I hear of someone getting a job these days or when I see job postings on job boards, whether it's the AIA or someone else's listings. If you've managed to score or keep a job as an intern, it's probably a relief to you to finally have some cash coming in so you can move out of your parents' house, or get a better apartment, pay off some credit card bills and student loans, and maybe finally splurge on that new iPhone you've been craving since you got out of college last year and couldn't have because you could barely afford to put gas in the car. And good on you--enjoy that financial relief (and new iPhone), but spare a moment's thought for your future, both short-term and long-term.

Over the past two years, my office cut my (and all my remaining coworkers') hours and pay by 10%, and we lost some other benefits as well (though our healthcare coverage remained, the costs went up). Making ends meet was a struggle, but my husband and I got through in pretty good shape and with fewer bouts of insomnia than many others in this economy. When the economy first started sliding big-time in early September of 2008 and the first round of layoffs hit my office, the hubby and I immediately cut back on our 401(k) contributions for several months so that we could stockpile easily-accessible cash into online savings accounts (which tend to have better interest rates than bricks-and-mortar banks). After we stockpiled between us six months' worth of mortgage payments on our condo, we went back to our normal levels of 401(k) contributions. At the same time, we figured out ways to cut our expenses and decided to forego a few of our usual trips and splurges. Now on the seemingly-other side of the Great Recession, we find ourselves with a nice chunk of savings to build on or use, but had one of us been laid off, we could have paid the mortgage for six months without ever having to use our unemployment to do so.

When I first began my architectural career in 2000, it used to annoy me to no end to have someone tell me to put money into my 401(k) and to chuck a little of my meager paycheck each month into an emergency savings account. Hell, I wasn't making that much in the first place, and now you want me to not have access to even more of it?! But thinking through the rainy-day point of view began to make more sense. First of all, saving for retirement was really easy for three reasons:

a) they take the money out of my paycheck before it ever gets to me, so it's not like I ever had it to miss in the first place;

b) my company matches up to a certain percent, so even if the market is crap, I put in that percentage that they match and doubled my money (and everything I put in over that matching percentage helps too, because;

c) the younger you are when you start to save for retirement, the better off you are because overall, time is on your side (investments with Bernie Madoff notwithstanding).

But saving for the short term, the rainy-day/emergency fund, is a really good idea for those just starting out. It is precisely because you don't have a lot of extra cash lying around that makes the emergency fund so important. A couple of years ago, I sprained my ankle really badly and had to go to the emergency room. Even though I had good health insurance that paid for everything I had done that day, there was still a $100 copay to get in the door of the ED. That's a big chunk of cash to drop, especially if you're just starting out and aren't making a lot. Having a little saved up can make surprise expenses--car repair, emergency room visit, trip home for a funeral, vet bill for a pet--easier to swallow.

So how much to save? I've seen different estimates on this, depending on the financial guru. The supposed "rule" is that you should have three to six months' worth of living expenses saved, but depending on your situation you could get by with more or less. I'd say aim for one month's worth of expenses saved up and go from there. And if you're paying off student loans and credit cards while all this is going on? Just get into the habit--even putting aside $20 per paycheck can help. Think about it: if you get paid every two weeks, you can save up $100--my emergency room copay--in two and a half months. That might seem like a long time, but it's a longer time if you have to put yet another surprise expense on a credit card and then pay it off at 19%.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Saving for a rainy day, part 1 of 2

During this most recent summer, I consulted on a reality construction TV show for a production company. I was excited to get the chance to work on a TV show, and I really enjoyed learning how those reality construction & remodeling shows go together. I have to say that the extra cash I earned from it was nice, too; they gave me two checks for my work, totaling a little under a grand. During a time when my entire office's pay had been cut, a little extra in the pocket sure helped. It was even invigorating, until I looked a little closer at the check.

The receipt-accounting-stub-thingy attached to the check showed that it was straight pay--no taxes or anything had been withheld. Hmm...suddenly things got sticky. If you earn money during the year, you have to claim it. And if you earn money and claim it, you'll have to pay taxes on it, especially if it wasn't taxed before. What this meant for me is that even if I wanted (or needed) to spend that money somewhere, I'm still going to have to account for having to pay taxes on it at some point in the spring of 2011. So even if I need to use that money now or in the near future, I need to set aside at least a third (probably more like 40%) in case I have to pay taxes on it. The same thing occurred to me (well, it occurred to my husband first) when I recently returned from a speaking engagement. I had been given a handsome check to cover my travel expenses and my speaker's fee, and as I looked at the check I realized the same thing had happened here--there was no sign that the non-profit had withheld any taxes on my pay. I realized that, at least for now, I was going to have to set aside my actual speaker's fee for now in case I was going to owe major taxes on this.

It would be tempting not to claim any of this income. However, each of these companies and organizations that has cut me a check and paid me for my efforts is going to claim that expense on their taxes in the spring of 2011, and that money is going to have to turn up somewhere else. While I didn't fill out a W2 for the speaking engagement, I did fill out one for the TV production company, so I'm definitely going to show up on their books. They may very well mention my social security number in their taxes, so what happens when I act like I never received anything from them? Quite possibly an audit of my and my husband's taxes, that's what. And before anyone tries to get political here, let me say that I've never seen any difference in this situation regardless of what political party is in the White House or is in charge of the national or state Congress--taxes on this kind of income is 30% to 40%, give or take a few.

I mention this on Intern 101 because I imagine that some of you have taken on extra or side jobs in order to make ends meet in this economy, much as I have. Depending on how that income was given to you, it will behoove you to consider the tax consequences of that income. Putting aside at least 30% of that windfall for a while does two things for you: one, it allows you to build up a little interest on it, depending on the kind of account you save it in; and two, it allows you not to be blindsided by the Tax Man come April.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Can (and should) interns work for free?

I found an interesting (and informative) article on the AIA's website regarding the AIA's rules regarding the circumstances under which an intern can work at a firm for free. The whole article is worth reading, but here are the six criteria that determine if an internship does not qualify for governance/protection under the Fair Labor and Standards Act:

    1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.

    2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.

    3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.

    4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern, and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.

    5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.

    6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

Fair enough, but I think there's a bigger question at stake here. As one of my friends used to say in Studio, "Just because you can doesn't mean you should--consider the consequences." Working for free tells a firm--and a profession--just exactly how much you'll work for. Furthermore, I've noticed when interns have been super-underpaid or have worked for free, it does something to their souls, even their notion of self-worth. And yes, I know interns don't make a lot, but there are some interns who are getting paid even more poorly than the average intern, and that scars you. And I know that the present intern generation is supposed to be entitled and self-centered, but a) I've yet to meet any interns that are really all that entitled and self centered (six years of studio will beat the "entitled" right out of you), and b) if you go to school for six years and work your butt off, you have earned the right to be paid a fair wage for the work you're about to do, especially if the organization for which you toil is about to profit or otherwise benefit from the work you're doing. So I do strongly urge interns to think twice--nay, thrice--before accepting an unpaid internship at a firm--never sell yourself short.

The NCARB expiration date and the start of the 6-Month Rule

I got a question from a reader which I sent on to my contact M at NCARB. Here are the intern's questions and the responses:

Intern Question part 1: I just got my NCARB record going, and I see there is an expiration date - 3 years. Does that mean I only have three years to get all my hours done? Is there a way to extend this period?

NCARB says: When an intern creates an NCARB record, they currently receive three years of service and one transmittal of their record with the application fee of $350. *They can also use a tool in their online record to request a Record Summary to support their application for Early Eligibility to the ARE in participating states. For each additional year of service, there is an annual renewal fee of $75.

Intern Question part 2: Next, the 6-month rule. I understand the diagram, but I'm not sure when my 6 months start. Since I'm unemployed, I can only earn supplementary hours. I'm curious if my clock has started. The three year thing is somewhat discouraging only because I'm unemployed and wonder if I started it too early.

NCARB says: The Six Month Reporting rule now applies to all experience submissions. An intern could not submit experience that has a start date that is older than eight months from today’s current date. An applicant’s three years of service does start on their application date and does not alter due to periods of unemployment. NCARB has made a significant effort to develop new supplementary education opportunities that can be used outside of a traditional work setting.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Applying for a job? Think about your online presence

My recent post about applying for jobs reminded me of an important tip point about scoring the interview: if your online presence reflects negatively on you, your resume may only go as far File 13. More and more, employers are Googling potential interview candidates, checking out their names on Facebook, MySpace (I know! people are still on that site!) Twitter, and blogging sites such as Blogger (where this site is hosted) and Wordpress. And if they find anything they dislike on your social networking sites, it's bye-bye interview.

According to an article in the Sunday 10/3/2010 Wall Street Journal insert in the Denver Post, some new professionals are only allowing a close circle of family and friends to have access to your personal networking sites but then have a professional, public site that anyone can see. The article described signing up for Google alerts to "keep track of where and how your name is mentioned." Meanwhile, as you create your public, professional presence online, be sure to friend or connect with others in your field--former colleagues from college as well as previous jobs (well, people that you would admit to hanging out with, anyway).

Interestingly, the article also states the following:

You can take [your web presence] a step further by creating your own blog. Write about the new developments in your career and industry. Post links to articles of interest. Offer a space for reader feedback so you can build an audience. It's okay to be critical of something or someone--you want to establish your voice. Keep it professional.

Monday, October 4, 2010

How can I get a job with no experience?

Ahhhh, fall. A lovely time of year when football season starts, the weather gets cooler, and everyone's sending out their resumes after either taking a summer break or finishing up their degree during summer semester. A couple of months ago, I got a great question from Caitlin, and I'd like to a) apologize for taking so long to get to this, and b) answer it in some semi-coherent way (which is why it took me so long to get to the question).

Caitlin asked:

I have a bit of a personal dilemma involving my job search... I have no architectural experience!
It puts me at a huge disadvantage... I just graduated, no honors or awards to speak of, and a handful of odd-jobs (I only included a couple on my resume itself, I was laughed at by a job fair recruiter once for putting "bartender" on my resume). Any personal connections I've utilized have lead nowhere, which I feel is also a disadvantage.

Caitlin's ultimate question is how to respond to a potential interviewer regarding her lack of experience. That's a great question, and here's the short answer to it: honestly and eloquently.

It does depend on why you haven't gotten an architectural job during college. When I went job hunting (back in the halcyon days of 2000, when the economy was awesome and our money wasn't on fire), I didn't have any real working-at-an-architectural-firm experience. The closest I had was working for one summer in the design & construction department of a resort/nature preserve almost an hour form my hometown, and i worked a couple of summers and Christmases at a local hospital in the medical records department. If someone had asked me why I didn't have any actual firm experience, I would have answered them thus: I was told that all the nearby firms were of poor quality, and all the good firms (in Atlanta) were a 90-minute commute for me. And that was the truth--family friends who had met and worked with architects in our nearby area (within 45 minutes of my hometown) universally panned the local architects as hacks who didn't know how to put a house together, and no one would recommend working with any of the few that were nearby. The firms that might be worth working at, in Atlanta, were at least a 90-minute commute each way for me, living in rural Georgia as I did in college. Furthermore, trying to live in Atlanta or anywhere closer to Atlanta to shorten the drive would have been cost-prohibitive in the mid- to late-1990s. Therefore, I worked a job closer to home that would allow me to be challenged in an unusual way and still learn something. Given the fact that I was now interested in working on healthcare architecture, it would appear that my experience at the hospital might have weighed just as well in my favor as would have working in a firm.

So the truth generally works, as long as it's a reasonable truth. For example, if you just graduated or graduated in the past year, it might be reasonable to say that you haven't worked at a firm because no one has been hiring in the past 12-24 months in your area, so you worked wherever you could, be it bartending, waiting tables, mowing lawns, answering phones for a nonprofit, whatever. (And don't let anyone laugh at you for any job experience--work is work, and you learn something useful in every job that you can use in architecture.)

But let me step back and address Caitlin's bigger concern, that having no experience can hurt you. It really depends on the firm and the economic climate. For example, if you just graduated in the past couple of years, firms likely weren't hiring during the time in which a) you would know enough about architecture to be worth hiring and b) your work hours would count towards IDP. In that case, it's hard to hold your lack of architectural experience against you. Furthermore, there are firms that in whole or in part don't mind taking on interns that have no experience. One of the partners at the firm for which I work prefers taking on fairly inexperienced interns because they tend to have lots of enthusiasm and are willing to work like crazy (within some reason, of course) in order to learn about their profession, plus he and his managers don't have to untrain them of bad habits and practices that they might have picked up at a lesser firm. Also, interns with less experience are cheaper to hire, so it can be worth a firm's time to spend the time to train you because, depending on the project and its schedule, it may still be cheaper than hiring someone with five years' experience. So while not having a lot of experience can feel like a disadvantage, it can be an advantage at certain firms. Ultimately, in a down economy or during the long, slow recovery thereof, a lack of experience isn't exactly a deal breaker, again depending on the firm.