What keeps young architects interested in practice?

AIAS - Architectural graduate hero

Amidst a wealth of alternative career paths, firms need to offer more than just a job

During a panel discussion with the leaders of the American Institute of Architecture Students at AIA Convention 2016, a question was posed from the dais:

"Has anyone considered quitting?"

Perhaps surprisingly, more than a few hands in the audience went up. And as the topic pivoted to a broader conversation on finding your place in architecture, the follow-up question that hung in the air was "Why?"

It's no secret that architecture school is rigorous, not every student becomes a practicing architect, and those who do practice find the path to licensure a long and winding one. But what is it that leads young architects to consider alternative professional avenues?

"Unlike some other high-level professions, architectural training allows for many different career paths," says Danielle Mitchell, Assoc. AIA, 2015-2016 president of the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS). "Design thinking and problem-solving skills are applicable in countless ways."

Sometimes those paths come in shapes and sizes you may not expect. The mayor of Salisbury, Maryland is Jacob Day, Assoc. AIA, a former president of AIAS and Richard Upjohn Fellow. All across the world, you'll find architecture school graduates in urban planning, public service, community development, and a bevy of other fields that take advantage of the thought processes drilled into their brains at a young age. Now, perhaps more than ever, the options—and market demands—for a design-centric mind are ample.

Setting your sights high

The AIAS panel—hosted by Mitchell and Joel Pominville, Assoc. AIA, 2015-2016 AIAS Vice President—examined the future of the profession and touched on the general advantages that make a young architect at home, including a good mentor, a strong onboarding program, and the value of listening instead of simply hearing. But what happens when getting hired is only part of the puzzle?

For many, getting a foot in the architecture door is victory enough. But an improved economy means strong applicants can afford to be picky about their first firm. Specific opportunities that stand out, and chances to spread roots in different areas of the profession, are tantamount to success for both employer and employee.

"I spoke with a young Convention attendee after the panel who shared that her firm, a decently sized one, is allowing her to start looking into community development possibilities," Pominville says. "She may not even realize it, but she's going to be the founder or the manager of an in-firm initiative eventually, all while pursuing architecture."

Danielle Mitchell, Assoc. AIA, [center] led the American Institute of Architecture Students panel at AIA Convention 2016 where quitting came up as a discussion point.

Of course, that's a luxury not everyone can afford. Smaller firms, in particular, have to focus on the daily trials and tribulations that all small businesses face, with less time for the specific ambitions of their young employees. But there's also a level of flexibility with a small firm, an ability to adapt at a speed that larger operations can't achieve.

Rachel Martinelli, Assoc. AIA, can vouch for that. While getting her M.Arch. at the University of Southern California, she encountered more than a few learning moments that she credits to the intimacy of a smaller staff.

"I interned at a small firm with three full-time employees," she says, "and they provided opportunities, including meeting with clients and the city, that, frankly, some of my graduated-and-employed friends weren't getting."

And she's continued down that path during her nine months at Price Architects in Los Angeles, another small firm that's big on both experience and elasticity.

"Price has really embraced working virtually," she says, so much so that their 5,000-square-foot office in LA often houses only a handful of employees. Through Skype and screen-sharing—along with weekly face-to-face meetings—they've taken on employees from throughout California and kept up with the telecommuting trend that others in architecture haven’t quite figured out.

"I'm the youngest by 20 years," she added, "but having that gap has been great. They have the time—and the answers—for so many of my questions. I know people at larger firms who aren't in the same boat."

Those memorable moments

When it comes to work as a creative outlet, sometimes it can help to look outside the office. During his entry-level days in Vermont, Pominville found additional stimulation as a local theater's volunteer set designer. But he also looked back quite fondly on the time his bosses let him throw a Presidential Panini Party on Presidents Day, and when his coworker—a skilled woodworker—was allotted a portion of the overtime budget to build new desks and furniture for the office.

"It's that level of agility that you remember," he says, "and recognizing the importance of little gestures."

Being young and uncertain about your future isn't a new feeling; what is new is having social media platforms to collaborate on, blog posts from similarly concerned cohorts to consume, and discussion groups aimed at alleviating any arising tension. But more than anything, it's about asking the profession to evolve along with the rest of the world and provide opportunities for the architecture-hungry to contribute and unlock their best selves.

"We talk about quitting, we talk about all these negative things," Mitchell says, "but at the end of the day, we all love architecture. So what keeps us in? Partly a love for design; partly this sense of optimism that you have to have. To be an architect, you have to be willing to imagine the best."

Steve Cimino is the digital content manager at the AIA.

Image credits

AIAS - Architectural graduate hero

H. Armstrong Roberts

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