Response to Millennials

There is currently a debate in architectural circles about the lack of architectural interns (the lost millennial generation and what they will do to shape the world)

Architect Magazine: The Millenials

The argument goes: the recession decimated the ranks of young architectural interns going into the profession. Crowded out for under-paying jobs, they decided to go into art, construction, llama husbandry etc…

The underrepresented side of this problem? The way architectural firms are organized and run. It has turned alot of millennials off. Having been raised on the expectation that they would have happy, lucrative and energetic careers, they were extremely disappointed to find that higher-ups in architecture still want to design, make lots of money, and hire interns for cheap labor, while playing at care of their “professional development”. Where previous generations joined the ranks with the assumption that they had to “pay their dues”, and therefore put up with years of drawing toilet details in some dark corner of a dingy fluorescent-lit architecture sweatshop, the Millennial feels they shouldn’t have to put up with this kind of disparaging behavior from Management.

There is good sense to both sides. Architecture has to be a business. And yet, real interest and cultivation of young ideas and skills is a smart and meaningful thing for current management to do. To that end, some have suggested that one way to fix this problem is to make registration (as an architect, charged with public safety and well-being) easier. I wholeheartedly disagree.

While lawyers can leave school, take the bar, set up shop and practice with some input from senior partners, their mistakes mean someone can go to jail. An unhappy client can hire another lawyer and appeal.

Doctors on the other hand, leave school, continue a residency, an internship, then take the boards and become a doctor. This can take between 3-12 years after medical school to complete. When a doctor messes up, clients are not unhappy. They are dead.

Architects must complete a professional degree (a 5 year program or a 4+2 undergrad+grad school). It then takes anywhere from 3-12 years to finish our internship, pass exams and become registered architects in the US (it also depends to some extent on state regulations). Generally, very proactive graduates can finish quickly, and very exploratory or procrastinating grads take the longest. When architects mess up, buildings get sick or fall down. Clients are unhealthy or dead. Get the gist? Being an architect shouldn’t be easy.

Rather than focus on making it easier, we should focus on making architecture a better profession to aspire to. Fix some of the labor injustice etc…

So instead of waiting and hoping for Architect Magazine to publish my letter to the editor, I think I’ll “publish” it:

Dear Mr. Cramer,

After having read your “dialogue” piece, I thought I should weigh in. I was registered in 2010, just two and a half years after completing my formal education. I started my own firm in 2012 and believe I am part of a growing trend back towards community based architecture with global expertise and vision.

Having worked in New York for a couple years, I can also say I know a plethora of interns that should have started taking the tests years ago. But I don’t think the answer lies in changing the process, especially not in making it easier. That would be a public health, safety and welfare no-no.

Rather, change the incentives. Most firms provide no real incentive to get registered. Does a raise really motivate people? I’ve worked in firms where a defined pay raise is part of the equation and yet you don’t see any significant increase in registration initiative. Meanwhile, other firms don’t even give raises for registration because it doesn’t help them charge more for services, especially design phases. Why bother then?

The real hook to incentivize registration should be more holistic: What if architecture firms were partnerships like law firms? They could charge overhead to architects for shared expertise, office space, supplies, and equipment usage. Interns would want to register asap because of increased earnings AND increased opportunity, ie: real added responsibility. Under such an arrangement, newly minted architects would go find new work and manage it themselves, earning more than they do under salary (again, think of a law partnership) while bringing new projects and trajectories, learning to become entrepreneurs, and adding to the partnership’s bottom line. Each architect assumes liability for their work, but has the muscle of shared expertise to help continue to mentor them through practice. This would also help large firms retain talent by offering them concrete opportunity for career growth.

Architects are getting too used to salary. It’s making us dumb and comfortable. I worked in a handful of small and large firms and observed that a lot of architects and interns are just settling for whatever mind-numbing arrangement some firm is offering them because they want to be able to make a living and do somewhat interesting work. Under a different arrangement, there would be benefits to both the old guard and the new architects. Larger projects could still be pursued by one off partnerships under the same roof, and large firms could also become more localized, giving back to their communities through the work of younger architects while still maintaining large projects on their balance sheets. Young architects could choose to be part of larger teams or pursue their own work, or both, as much as their ambition and ability would allow. The flexibility of such an arrangement could transform the sense of purpose, responsibility and passion in our profession.

Yes, architects already form partnerships, but this partnering does not extend to the lowest levels, where it would perhaps be most transformative in the formation of new architects, new business, and renewed strength in our profession.

At Dura we are thinking about how to make architecture humane again, both to our clients and to our employees. Not an easy task, but essential. We think it is part financial, managerial, and cultural. The millennials want to change the world. First we need to change architecture. Architecture needs to run leaner. Cut out the managerial fat, the non-producers, the manipulators and the whiners. Keep expertise and thoughtful productivity. Free everyone up to do the work they are best and most happiest at. This would benefit our clients in terms of design value and benefit us in terms of enabling us to do the work we have been given to do with passion and consistency, while changing the world one office and one project at a time.

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