Architectural firms took a heavy hit during the Great Recession. Retirement incomes were grossly affected, resulting in a prolonged employment period for Baby Boomers. As a result, a record number of fledgling architects coming out of college from 2009–2012 couldn’t find employment and left the field. Now, with the recession in the rearview mirror and Boomers reaching retirement, a huge number of positions need to be filled. Firms trying to re-grow their business are finding the supply of young talent severely limited and are looking for ways of attracting a younger generation of architects into the profession.
Studies have shown Millennials – those born roughly between 1980 and 2000 – to be confident, self-expressive, upbeat, and socially conscious. They are also the most ethnically diverse generation in American history. Children of the Boomer generation, they were coddled by their parents. As a result, they may struggle to make independent decisions and can often be impatient. They are also the first generation to grow up in a technologically connected society. The amount of information they have taken in is staggering. Social computing has shaped their world view, raising their awareness of problems to be solved far removed from their daily lives, and to do so independent of traditional authority figures like parents, teachers and bosses.
Millenials are more likely to value leisure time over work. They expect a much quicker rise through the ranks than the preceding generation. Many also have an inflated expectation of what a starting salary should be with a corresponding expectation of a much higher salary sooner than what the market will bear. These beliefs put them at a disconnect from the way offices, particularly large firms, traditionally work.
This disconnect is heightened by the technological changes in the design field that are pushing architects more toward managing systems and infrastructure than designing objects. The result is a field that is losing its luster for young architecture graduates with visions of designing cutting-edge eco-projects who discover that the profession’s day to day work has more to do with improving facades, floor-planning cubicle spaces, redesigning HVAC systems, and installing banks of solar panels on roofs. If the creativity and freedom they envisioned as an architect doesn’t match their expectations, these young designers will probably go somewhere else; industrial design, perhaps, or 3D animation. They may leave the field altogether.
By 2025, Millennials will make up 75% of the workforce. They come to the job market often saddled with student debt and facing heavy competition for positions. In an age of historically stagnant wages and ever diminishing resources, compensation and career advancement are their paramount considerations. Closing the gap between their expectations and what currently prevails is the thorny but ultimately unavoidable issue for architecture as a profession.
THE NEW WORKPLACE
There is no easy answer to the desire of Millenials to leapfrog starting pay rates, be assured of rapid promotion, or see a six figure salary by their fifth year. Architects who worked through feast and famine for decades might call this magical thinking. Low starting pay, dedication, hard work and perseverance defined a career. But that was then. The fact is that to attract Millenials to the profession and keep them engaged, requires a workplace culture more suited to their sensibilities.
Companies such as Google have eschewed the traditional “top down” management style for a more “flattened” approach where employees are given more responsibility for the company’s success. The downside of the “flat” approach is that it is good for ideas but bad for egos; a change that may not come easily to “old school” management. But Millennials thrive on structured process, well defined assignments, and two-way communication. They also welcome collaboration, a trait that provides a pathway to smoothing the generational divide.
To this end, some firms are assigning them mentors to encourage their ideas and provide feedback. Other approaches include “reverse mentoring”, pairing them with Boomer executives to teach them new communication techniques; giving them regular access to senior management; and implementing job rotation and “roving culture” programs that get them out of the office.
No one can predict how the employment picture will play out for the Millennial generation. The only certainty is that technology will play an ever greater role in the fast changing field of architecture. And Millennials – phenomenally entrepreneurial and not afraid to venture into the unknown – are technically equipped to set up their own shops. To find and retain top performers will require firms to reassess the care and feeding of this new generation of architects.
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