What Is a Talent Pipeline?
Illustration: Michael Kirkham

As AIA California Council 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 director of public affairs 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 do big paychecks and benefits in estimating their overall picture of employment. As the presenters for “Engage, Train, and Retain: Cultivating Leaders,” a session at the 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 already a time-honored, fundamental concept?

“Today’s young professionals are not looking for something they think is unique,” says Megan Dougherty, Assoc. AIA, of Costa Mesa, Calif.–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 the A’17 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 giving independence. Barlow is an architect at Payette in Boston, where its Young Designers Core (YDC) has a 17-year legacy.

“Our firm leaders are very hands-off; they trust us,” she says. “The YDC establishes annual goals that are relevant to participating designers each year; it is always fresh.”

Barlow says the YDC’s autonomy is essential to its success. She hopes the panel dialogue—slated to touch on sustainable leadership, budgets, time constraints, programming, and the logistics of creating and empowering staff—will capture distinct perspectives from young professionals at Payette, Turner Construction, and Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, 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 the Michael Hsu Office of Architecture (MHOA) in Austin, Texas, the “street cred” of the firm has become part of its attraction.

“I am working on projects that are relevant to me and how I experience Austin,” he says. MHOA 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 MHOA than anywhere else.
“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.”

Dougherty notes that the office atmosphere is what makes her excited to go in every morning, but it’s a kind of existential crisis that keeps her engaged. “Architecture as we know it will not exist in the near future. The design process is not immune to automation. [If architecture is to survive] we need to be thought-leaders, rather than just technicians or designers,” she says, adding that computers can do 100 iterations of a project a lot quicker than humans can.

“[In other words] sitting at a desk working in Revit or AutoCAD—although necessary for now—is doing nothing for our future success,” she says. “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 proactive 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 that don’t fit into the box.”