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Architecture as a career opportunity.

Perhaps no other field is more directly tied to the condition of the economy than is the field of architecture. When business is booming and revenues are healthy, construction projects are plentiful, translating into a plethora of work opportunities for architects. Conversely, during recessionary times, when profits are down and money is tight, architects are finding jobs scarce, competition stiff, unemployment on the rise, and prospects for relief in the immediate future dismal.

However, despite such forecasts, industry observers agree that those who have prepared themselves properly can survive the present downturn and eventually flourish in this often volatile field. Provided, that is, they're willing to make certain sacrifices early in their careers (especially lower entry-level salaries), pursue an area of specialization, and develop their skills on a variety of fronts.

There are many different areas of specialization within the field of architecture. And while the major focus of any practitioner is still on design, the successful architect will develop specialized skills within a particular segment of the industry. Some for instance, will gravitate toward designing certain building types. Everything from public facilities like convention centers, police stations, aquariums and schools, to private structures such as high-rise office complexes, performance arenas, shopping malls, and condominiums. Others concentrate on certain aspects of the building, like interior, exterior, or landscape architecture.

This trend toward specialization has fragmented the field and places an even higher premium on the value of a graduate degree. Students will most likely only receive generalized, generic architectural training at most universities and colleges at the undergraduate level. More and more of the graduate programs, though, are introducing specialties. In years past, similar experience could only be garnered on the job, working for a firm that was hired to handle such specialized projects.

Students should align themselves with a school that offers flexibility for such courses as civil engineering, concrete, structural steel, etc. They should also take courses in landscape architecture and city planning. If they have the talent and enjoy interior design, and it's available, they should take that, too. Architecture students ought to be grounded in what is real, what they're actually going to confront in the workplace. Also, college students now might consider a great deal more training in computer applications in design. It's much more important now than it was some 15-20 years ago. It's going to become almost a requirement in another five to 10 years.

Donna V. Robertson, dean of the Tulane University School of Architecture, advises, "Mechanical drawing and drafting skills can easily be taught in college architectural courses. In this respect, pursuits which stimulate creative thought, such as writing, poetry, sculpture, or product design, should be emphasized in pre-college years. Knowledge of artistic or construction crafts and the translation of sensory experience into visual expressions by use of freehand drawings or other non-mechanical means are good skills to have when considering architecture as a major. Visual awareness and creative drive are components which are difficult to develop in school and so need to be pursued as an interest or made evident prior to college."

African-American architect Lonnie Hewitt Jr., principal, Hewitt-Washington and Associates, Inc. in New Orleans, Louisiana, says, "Anyone interested in pursuing architecture as a profession ought to understand that this is a business in addition to the artistic and design aspects which we all know. I would recommend that a student take business and law courses so that there is a clear understanding of the two disciplines directing the architectural practice today. A good architect in today's world is well rounded. He or she must be good at design, good at detailing, and also good at administrative and business functions. Historically, architects have concentrated on the design or the detailing area, but they have not been not attentive to the business of architecture. Financial rewards come from solid business practices."

Hiring Practices

As much as there are attempts to stabilize the practice of architecture, the demand for architects depends upon the construction activity in the commercial, public, and quasi-public sectors in your area. Construction, particularly that of nonresidential structures, is tied to the economy. In a number of major U.S. cities, the economy has been poor for the past eight years, creating a lack of demand for new jobs in architecture. When jobs are in short supply, the field gets more competitive and more demanding of employment seekers. The more one has to offer a potential employer, the better the chances of getting hired.

The skills that attract an architect employer are listed below:

* Communication skills (oral and written)

* Drawing skills (design and construction documents)

* Computer literacy (word processing and CADD, computer-aided design and drafting)

* Understanding of systems (structural; civil; heating, ventilating, air-conditioning; electrical; plumbing)

* Codes and regulations (building codes, zoning laws, fire safety, handicapped laws and requirements)

* Cost estimating

* Specifications

* Experience in other architectural offices or related fields

The first five skills are expected to be learned in an accredited school of architecture and the last three involving more extensive construction document experience, are expected to be acquired within the first three to five years of internship.

There are four qualities that are difficult to measure in an interview for employment but which will sustain one's position with a firm for many years and cause an employee to be considered a valuable asset. These are honesty, versatility, dedication, and a solid recognition that an employer wants to make money. This is translated into admitting mistakes which are rarely, if ever, repeated; switching from one architectural project to another and from one type task to another without problems in adjustment; staying late to complete a task or project when the due date is short; and performing tasks correctly. Without these qualities, an employer cannot afford to hire you or keep you employed.

In order for a person to understand what kinds of entry-level jobs a graduating architect might find, it is first important to understand the way architectural projects are structured. Every project has what is called a project architect, someone who is actually tasked with designing the building or structure. Depending on the size of the firm, they usually have others working under them who would do the production drawing and work out the details of the project. But usually the project architect communicates directly with the client, and he or she schedules the whole project in terms of putting together the drawings.

Under the project architect is a job captain in charge of drafting. The job captain may supervise one or more draftsmen. Seldom, if ever, is an architect fresh out of school ever hired as anything other than a draftsman, the lowest level in the pecking order.

Entry-level salaries for architects are in the $20K-$30K range, commensurate with your level of expertise, your hands-on experience, and the degrees you hold. Naturally, job candidates with graduate degrees will fare better than those holding only a baccalaureate.

The normal entry-level position for an inexperienced architectural graduate is as a draftsman, intermediate draftsman, or architectural draftsman, average starting salary $23K, according to The American Almanac of Jobs and Salaries. A recent graduate with two to five years' experience may sign on as an architectural designer or intermediate designer, average starting salary $29K.

Once you've settled into a new job, your ultimate goal should be to become certified. Professional certification, while not automatic, isn't particularly elusive for architects who are reasonably skilled and have been working professionally for several years. Passing a series of tests, usually lasting four days, is all that's required to become a registered architect.


Many myths are created about the profession of architecture that are misleading to those unfamiliar with its true function in today's society. This article attempts to dispel some of those myths by informing the pre-professional of the many facets that one must deal with to survive in the 1990's and the twenty-first century. The following is a list of typical impressions heard about architects or about the architectural profession that should be clarified:

1. Architects are rich. They make lots of money.

Architecture is one of the lowest paid professional practices in the country. A review of salaries comparing architects with accountants, dentists, doctors, lawyers, scientists, and engineers shows how small the architect's salary really is. Even some of the ancillary and support professions such as nursing and paralegal positions make more money than licensed architects. The following salary ranges by no means represent a comprehensive view of the complex salary structures of the listed professions, but generally do highlight the scale of earnings exhibited by the named standard profession.
Profession Low Yearly High Yearly
Name Salary Salary
Lawyers (Partners) $100,500.00 $1,100,000.00
Doctors (Private Practice) $ 79,910.00 $ 271,550.00
Dentists (Incorporated) $120,409.00 $ 157,499.00
Architects (Principals) $ 60,000.00 $ 250,000.00
Lawyers (Private Sector) $ 34,073.00 $ 110,162.00
Engineers (Private Industry) $ 29,668.00 $ 86,353.00
Scientists $ 22,856.00 $ 70,998.00
Accountants (Private Ind.) $ 22,300.00 $ 66,660.00
Paralegals $ 22,000.00 $ 50,000.00
Architects (Private) $ 18,500.00 $ 50,000.00

As can be seen by the chart of salary ranges, except for principals of firms, architects rank at the bottom of the list of standard professions. The middle 50 percent of the architectural profession earn between $22,000.00 and $38,000.00, explaining why some 60 percent of the professionals surveyed are dissatisfied with their salaries, while 70 percent were satisfied with their work activity.

2. Architects dress well.

There is a small group of architects (perhaps 10 percent or so) who dress with some personal style and flare, but the vast majority of architects dress with a kind of uniform regularity. Architects are a very conservative group of people, generally.

3. The lives of architects are extravagant.

Law, medicine, and architecture carry a certain status as professions within our society. Like all of the professions, there are those who take advantage of their surroundings, participate in stimulating design competitions, go to art openings, art and architecture galleries, live creatively, travel extensively, and posses personal wealth, etc. Architects work, eat, and go home to take care of the kids and family. This is not to say that some architects do not lead more stimulating lives, but that, for the most part, architects have been taught to work long hours and are always looking for other methods to earn income.

4. An individual must be proficient in math in order to consider architecture as a profession. A college education in an accredited school of architecture is extremely demanding. If nothing else, these schools teach hard work and discipline. Many schools with architectural curriculum can impart a diverse educational experience unparalleled in other disciplines or professions. Although some architects are proficient at the higher forms of math, the demand for that proficiency is not extreme and the use of higher math in the profession is almost non-existent. There are more architects that are good at math than there need be and fewer architects good at aesthetics than there should be. A sense of design, arrangement and spatial organization and problem solving skills are more important than math in this profession.

5. Once an architect finishes school, he or she should be able to practice architecture immediately. There is still a requirement to complete three years of internship prior to being eligible to sign up to take the Architectural Licensing Examination. Although there has been some attempt to aid the intern in that preparation through the IDP (Intern Development Program), most recent graduates have difficulty receiving a well-rounded experience once they are employed with an architect. After fulfilling the three year internship program and the IDP requirements, one must pass all sections of an extensive four-day Architect Registration Examination that tests one's knowledge in each of nine subjects.

After you have passed all parts of the licensing exam and sent that year's registration fee to whichever state the exam was taken, then and only then is one a licensed architect. In summary, there are typically five years to a professional degree from an accredited architectural school, three years of internship, and the licensing exam to be taken and all nine parts passed to be a licensed architect.

Architecture 2005

The architectural profession is less than 200 years old, with Benjamin Latrobe establishing standards of professionalism in the nineteenth century. The introduction of the first architecture school at MIT in 1865 paralleled the development of the profession. Changes in the profession and in the curriculums of architecture taught at the various accredited institutions have been dramatic.

A survey taken by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) indicates that 60 percent of those with architecture degrees or registrations are employed in architecture or architecture/engineering (A/E) firms; eight to 10 percent with building development firms; nine percent in government; and seven percent in teaching; with nine percent unemployed. Those professionals choosing to transfer to other professions has been on the rise. Employment is expected to rise nearly as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2005, with most job openings made available due to transfer to other occupations or leaving the labor force.

The downside of the profession stems from the low salaries and the high liability and not from lack of enjoyment of the work activity. The architect's interest in specialization, in contractually limiting liability, in combining of design and construction elements into a design/build activity, in use of computers, and in a more business-like approach to compensation will all make the profession stronger financially, but will also have the effect of changing the way businesses are run and how architects are prepared to meet his challenge.

Although the outlook for architects is not the most rosy picture, there are opportunities in this profession yet to be explored. In particular, there are so few African Americans in the field of architecture that the demand will continue to grow within the profession. Speaking from my own experience, I have found the field rewarding. To take part in the design of a building that you and others can enjoy is like no other experience on this earth.


The American Almanac of Jobs and Salaries, John W. Wright and Edward J. Dwyer, 1990-1991 Edition.

Occupational Outlook Handbook, U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 1992, Bulletin 2400, 1992-93 Edition.

Gerald Billes is a principal in the architectural firm of Billes/Manning Architects in New Orleans, Louisiana.
COPYRIGHT 1993 IMDiversity, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Career Reports: The Professions
Author:Billes, Gerald W.
Publication:The Black Collegian
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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