In January the Georgetown University Center of Education and the Workforce reported that students with a Bachelor in Architecture have the highest unemployment rate among all college graduates, 13.9%. The statistic went viral in architectural circles, recycling the same professional gloom that greeted me over thirty years ago, when I earned my M.Arch in the middle of the recession of 1981. I rebuffed the many naysayers who warned me architecture would be a volatile career and went on to enjoy continuous, satisfying work for over thirty years; work that I believe has made a meaningful contribution to our world.
The ironic timing of the recent report is that in January I left my full time position at TRO JB in Boston to split my effort between philanthropic work and firm responsibilities. This transition towards retirement provokes reflection and prompted me to consider the benefits of devoting my career to architecture.
Let’s start with the most obvious and superficial reason. Being an architect is cool. Architects thrive at the intersection of art and technology, we deal with the fantastic and the prosaic, we create things that are both monumental and useful. The cocktail party response to learning I am an architect is always a ‘wow’ even though my specialty is designing hospitals and I wear rather ordinary glasses. Architects exist on a high plateau in people’s imaginations, and there is a kick to being an architect that any insurance agent, accountant, you name it, would envy.
The cool factor, shallow though it is, reflects the truth that an architect’s daily work contains more variety and exercises a wider range of skills than most other jobs. Our specialty is spatial conception, but we also do significant analysis, writing, presentation, and field work. Under the broad description of being an architect I have been a draftsman, a detailer, a designer, a specification writer, a construction administrator, an engineering coordinator, a medical planner, a programmer, a strategic healthcare analyst, and a Lean process improvement facilitator. I have made presentations to clients, regulatory agencies, citizen groups, and fellow architects. I have had all kinds of initials after my name, AIA, CSI, LEED AP, EDAC, Certified Greenbelt, but each flowed logically through an integrated career. We hear about burnout among teachers, nurses, and many other professionals. Architects don’t burn out, we evolve.
Part of the variety to being an architect is rooted in our potential work settings. I began my career in a two person storefront office in Oklahoma City. My first built design was an unglamorous generator building for an apartment complex, but within five years we had designed and built hundreds of units of affordable and special needs housing throughout the state. When I moved to Massachusetts I opted for a large firm and found a niche in healthcare, where I have had a hand in over $2 billion in construction that includes three Greenfield replacement hospitals, many large additions, and dozens of renovations. Still, when my children were young and I needed flexibility I hung out my own single for a few years and had a successful, if bipolar, practice of designing upscale residential and affordable housing projects.
The flexibility inherent in being an architect is one of its many positive attributes. My motto is, “I always have something to do today, but I don’t have anything I have to do today.” We work on deadlines, but they are measured in weeks and months, rather than the fifteen minute appointment intervals my medical colleagues suffer through. We do our work best when we can do it deliberately, with time to evaluate the merits of different options. That is a luxury work places governed by a clock cannot afford.
After employment uncertainty, the second most common complaint about being an architect is the compensation. Architects are among the lowest paid professionals, yet my response to this is, we earn enough. Star designers and architect developers can earn big bucks, the rest of us make a reasonable living. I work with a lot of doctors who earn $400,000 or more per year, and most nurses top one hundred grand, but their stress level is commensurate with their salaries. I accept an architect’s relative salary among professionals because I appreciate the intangibles of a creative, flexible work environment. Even on my most productive afternoon I am not pressed to churn through the work volume that an ED doctor or nurse encounters on a busy shift.
In the final analysis architecture is as much a calling as a profession. When my grade school friends fantasized about being a fireman or a policeman or an astronaut, I was busy filling a binder with drawings of buildings. Choice didn’t factor into becoming an architect, I never considered anything else. It is in my genes, and no depth of recession or salary belly aching could dissuade me. When my son was unhappy studying engineering at Cornell, I asked if he ever considered architecture. He said, “I think I could do it, but I don’t have the fire in my belly; the lights in the architecture studios are always on, those guys are really into it.”
In some small way I am making the employment picture rosier for new architects; retiring from full time work may open opportunities for new talent. But I am not really retiring; another advantage of architecture is that you can practice as long as your mind stays quick. Rather I am going full circle, to work on smaller buildings and enjoy a larger hand in their completion. An offer to help a medical group in Haiti design a clinic in 2007 has morphed into a strong commitment to that magical country. I currently have two projects in construction there and decided to lend my hand in onsite supervision, adding expediting and project management to my repertoire of professional skills.
Ultimately the Georgetown article is not going to make much difference either way. I have never met anyone who went into architecture for any reason other than love, and love of career is just as immune from rational analysis and any other form. I applaud the twenty year old who reads that report and decides, ‘I don’t care, I’m am going to be an architect anyway.’ He or she is going to have as satisfying and exciting a career as their imagination will allow.