The shifting architectural workforce: What does it mean for our future?

EPs at Perkins+Will demonstrating virtual reality

Emerging professionals at the Perkins+Will office in Washington, DC, demonstrate the virtual reality technology that will help define the next generation of architects.

An emerging professional and millennial offers his perspective on the future of the workforce and firm culture

The architectural workforce is experiencing a pivotal shift. There are three distinct generations of professionals practicing today: baby boomers, Generation X, and millennials. Baby boomers and Generation X have had an undeniable impact on the propelling of the profession into the 21st century, but millennials are quickly becoming the majority and will soon set the prevailing culture of the workforce.

While baby boomers are often thought of as being more entrepreneurial and Generation X as more management oriented, millennials display different traits. We are more communicative and dependent, which leads us to a desire for more collaborative experiences and outcomes. Our interests span social justice, sustainability, and the impact of design, and this changes how we seek employment. Many of us are drawn to smaller firms that create social, equitable, and just design.

“Smaller, more local firms often have deeper roots in their respective communities,” says New York-based designer Daniel Horn, Assoc. AIA. “As a result, they can have more meaningful impacts as designers that can identify hyper-local design related issues.” The younger generation demonstrates an interest in design that doesn’t just look good but provides genuine benefits for communities, people, and the environment.

Having grown up as digital natives, the rising generation of architects is comfortable with new technologies; we embrace changes that can affect practice models. Advances such as automation for drafting, marketing, and project management; smart contracts; artificial intelligence; and virtual reality/visualization are already—or soon will be—affecting the way we design, document, and manage projects. Millennials easily embrace these technological advances and seek out new challenges after using them.

“Ideally, a fair exchange of knowledge and training occurs between millennials and older generations that educates and elevates the entire firm.” -  Jack Bialosky, Jr., FAIA

“Millennials can play an instrumental role in propelling a firm forward; as digital natives, they influence in two main spheres: communication and visualization,” says Jack Bialosky, Jr., FAIA, senior principal of Bialosky Cleveland. “Millennials take external communications to a new level, and define it as a means for the world to interface with your firm. In terms of visualization, millennials have been ambassadors of virtual reality, 3D modeling, and heightened technology that inform both design and practice. It is with these proclivities and knowledge that millennials, unlike their predecessors, enter the workforce with a very different type of currency to firms, and earn a seat at the table. Ideally, a fair exchange of knowledge and training occurs between millennials and older generations that educates and elevates the entire firm.”

Firm culture is front of mind for emerging professionals today, and is gaining importance among the profession as a whole. The combination of culture and meaningful work is often outweighing compensation or security for millennial architects and design professionals. We look for work environments that are fun and interactive, where there is collaboration inside and out of the office, or the ability to work remotely. These characteristics lead to an essential component of a company’s culture: work-life balance, or the prioritization of a career and lifestyle.

“I have moved on from two offices in my eight years in Anchorage due to culture clashes,” says Melissa Morse, AIA, a young architect practicing in Alaska. “When moving across the country, your culture comes with you; for me, I brought a Midwest mindset to a West Coast setting. It has taken me this long to adjust to the speed, expectations, and boundaries of the people and companies here. Now, I have allowed my uniqueness in this market to become the base of which I operate. I am the hardworking, giving, involved, and caring architect.”

Cultural standards are necessary for firms to attract, protect, and retain employees. However, not every firm is the same, and cultural standards will—and should—differ between firms and even among multiple offices within the same company.

The question is not whether millennials will have an impact, but to what extent and with how much resistance. As time progresses and this generation becomes the majority, will they have to struggle with older generations for control? Regardless, it is likely that their viewpoints will come to define present-day firm culture, as the viewpoints of other generations have before them.

Craig Chamberlain, Assoc. AIA, is a designer at JRA Architects in Lexington, Kentucky. He has been a passionate advocate for emerging professionals as Kentucky's 2014-2015 State Associate Director, the 2016-2017 Ohio Valley Regional Associate Director, and a 2018-2019 At-large Director for the AIA's National Associates Committee.

Image credits

EPs at Perkins+Will demonstrating virtual reality

Jim Richards

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