Tuesday, January 17, 2012

To the Student in Architecture

This week's Time magazine noted that college students least likely to find a job upon graduation have a degree in -- wait for it -- architecture.

It used to be that the construction industry (home building in particular) led the economy out of recessions. This recession (or this jobless recovery) will see no salvation in building. In fact, the building industry (or, more accurately, the bogus banking system that financed it) was a primary cause of the current recession. What underlies the activity of building? Architecture, of course.

Even in the best of times, the profession of architecture never had enough jobs to go around. When I was teaching architecture I knew most of my students would either (a) not graduate with a degree in architecture or (b) not become licensed architects even if they got a degree. The main reason was the absurdly low availability of good jobs. And yet, despite this attrition, the schools still produced far more architecture graduates than the job market could sustain.

Students continuously go into architecture with grand misconceptions about what architecture is all about. I taught many students whose dads who were home builders.  They (fathers and sons) thought architecture would be a great way to follow in dad's footsteps on a professional level. The truth is, home builders probably make more money than architects and with far less stress. To such young people I say: try a degree in construction management or finance.

I had several students from middle eastern countries. They were from privileged families and a degree in architecture had a certain upper-class, professional allure to them. Their actual interest in architecture was nil and they expected the degree to be handed to them wrapped in a silver ribbon. I am certain they never have and never will actually practice architecture. But they and others like them flood the limited job market anyway.

Others were told by high school mentors: "you're artistic and good in math; you should be an architect." Often, these starry-eyed students find out in their third or fourth year of college that architecture is not at all what they thought it would be. Math and art are tiny little components of an architect's work. Then they are faced with the dilemma of considering whether to plow through because they already have several years invested or cut their losses and start again in a more congenial field.

Too many students go into architecture with no idea how thin the opportunities, how low the salaries, and how few people actually rise above entry level ranks. It is shameful what the profession pays its interns and novices. My office has often hosted groups of high school students who think they want to become architects. I do my best to discourage the thought. Star architects like Liebskind and Calatrava have warped the public perception of architecture. These stars get outrageous press; young people conclude that architects cause to happen glorious structures that float above the mundane world. Ha! Developers and investors cause things to happen; architects work at their largesse. I tell these aspirants do not go into architecture because you think it will lead to fame, happiness, and wealth.

To the student in architecture: do not persist with the program because you want to, but because you have to. Have a clear understanding of the limitations (power rests not with the architect but with the developer) and the time requirements (a degree, a lengthy internship, a licensing exam that often takes years to complete). If, despite this bleak knowledge, you still aspire to be an architect, then nothing I say will change your mind. If you have a passion for architecture you have deaf ears to practical thoughts.

There is not much I can do to help such hapless souls. I receive a constant flow of inquiries for employment. Many of them are from new graduates. Sadly, many of them are also from experienced architects who have been with established firms for twenty, thirty years. I'm sorry there is no work for you. As Time magazine said: graduates from architecture schools are the least likely to find a job. It's not just the economy. It is a flaw in the system.

*     *     *

The previous paragraph was going to conclude this blog entry. On rereading, I cannot leave on such a negative tone.

Yes, employment prospects in the field of architecture are, and always have been, dismal. However, a degree in architecture is great preparation for a myriad of jobs. Architects are generalists. Their education covers math, art, engineering, history, business, and project management.  These skills can be applied broadly. Architects can market their talents in many different ways. Urban planning, law, historic preservation, education, facilities planning, graphic arts, -- all have openings for people with an architectural education. The student of architecture may find himself or herself employed in a completely unexpected capacity. And, of course, it's not like there is no work in architecture. There is some work. My office has projects that keep us busy. Other architects do as well. And the economy will improve.

My real message to students in architecture is: understand clearly what you are getting into and do it for the right reasons. Then, as you stand on that precipice that overlooks your life, maintain the belief that the future is bright, even if unknown.

Okay, I feel better now.

Graduation pic by Kyle James
Mountain Sunrise, Catskill by Thomas Cole, oil on canvas