What can firms do to retain young talent?

The talent pipeline

At AIA Conference on Architecture 2017, young professionals will share insight into how to cultivate and retain new leaders

As AIA California Council has uncovered in its report, "Attracting and Retaining Talent," firm principals have to shed assumptions about what matters to prospective and current team members. Neither a firm’s history nor its published design works seem to matter to prospective or current employees, the survey found. What matters, according to AIA’s John Schneidawind, is the firm’s overall portfolio and what researchers call its "street reputation."

Another notable finding is that work-life balance matters to young architects just as much as big paychecks and benefits in estimating their overall picture of employment. As the presenters for the Engage, Train, and Retain session at AIA Conference on Architecture 2017 (A'17) will explore, cultivating a long-term leadership strategy relies on careful attention to collaboration, as well as individual achievement. But isn’t that a time-honored and fundamental concept already?

"Today’s young professionals are not looking for something they think is unique," says Megan Dougherty, Assoc. AIA, of Costa Mesa-based Dougherty Architects. "They are looking for something they feel should be commonplace in our profession. The profession has always prided itself on mentorship, but the reality is that some firm leaders do not know what that really means. It is not just signing off on AXP."

For Dougherty and many of her millennial peers, mentorship is the backbone of a successful start in their professional careers. Hilary Barlow, AIA, organized A'17's panel on retaining talent to encourage young professionals and firm leaders alike to rethink employee engagement. Fundamentally, mentorship comes down to a balance between providing support and independence. Barlow is an architect at Payette in Boston, where its Young Designer’s Core has a 17-year legacy.

"Our generation is one of grassroots organization, exponential innovation, and career ADD." - Megan Dougherty, Assoc. AIA

"Our firm leaders are very hands-off, they trust us," she says. "The YDC establishes annual goals that are relevant to its young professionals each year—it is always fresh."

She says the YDC's autonomy is essential to its success. Barlow hopes the panel dialogue—which will touch on everything from the logistics of creating and empowering staff, sustainable leadership, budget, time constraints, and programming and will include representatives of young professional groups at Payette, Turner Construction Company, and Simpson Gumpertz & Heger—will capture distinct perspectives while also forging AEC industry collaboration.

Independence, relevance, and responsibility are words young designers use often when speaking about career development. For Matt Dubin, a designer at Michael Hsu Office of Architecture in Austin, Texas, the "street cred" of the firm has become just part of its attraction.

"I am working on projects that are relevant to me and how I experience Austin," he says. Hsu’s office has transformed the city with its designs for popular restaurants, bars and boutique hotels. "The fast nature of the work allows for a lot of variety," he adds, "which I appreciate."

Four years out of school and just shy of six months in his new post, Dubin says that he has learned more about how things get built, the design process and why things "are the way they are" at Hsu’s office than anywhere else.

"Innovative architects we look up to, and aspire to become, are not practicing traditional architecture." - Dougherty

"I have more responsibility and I am allowed to make mistakes here," he says. The casual office environment is important to him, and its collegial supportive culture encourages him to take ownership of the work. "They expect me to work hard and care about the work. Before I got here, I spent most days in Revit; now I am teaching people how to use Revit and should see a project that I designed built before the fall. It's very gratifying."

For Dougherty, the findings of the AIA California Council report prioritizing firm culture make sense. "Our generation is one of grassroots organization, exponential innovation, and career ADD," she says. "These traits lead us to prioritize a great work environment rather than an award-winning firm … for us, street reputation has a longer shelf life."

She notes that the office atmosphere is what makes her excited to go in every morning: "Architecture as we know it will not exist in the near future. As a result, we know that sitting at a desk working in Revit or AutoCAD, although necessary for now, is doing nothing for our future success. We want well-rounded professional development that will help us grow as thought leaders, which will always have relevancy, while working within a firm culture that encourages relationship building to create an environment of open communication."

By 2020, millennials will constitute more than 40 percent of the workforce. They are poised to transform the architectural profession and are pro-active about defining things for themselves. "Innovative architects we look up to, and aspire to become, are not practicing traditional architecture," Dougherty says. "They are melding several professions and concentrations that don’t fit into the box." Barlow’s panel promises to provide insight into how young professionals are shaping their futures and what firms can do to keep them around.

Image credits

The talent pipeline

Michael Kirkham

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