Pride was hardly the emotion I expected to feel upon reading the AIA’s 2011 Compensation Report. What reaction did I anticipate having? Perhaps mild interest in some detail such as the differences in income from region to region, or a touch of boredom from perusing such a data-intensive report. But to be perfectly honest, what I really expected to feel was sadness at the negative effects of the recession on peoples’ livelihoods.
Given the state of the economy, it should come as no surprise that compensation is down across the board. And that is not good news. But the dip isn’t consistent at every rung on the career ladder—which is where the report gets interesting, and even inspirational.
Here are the basics. Executive compensation has dropped from an average of $208,600 in 2008 (the last time the AIA conducted the survey), to $164,800 this year. That’s a mighty big drop. On the other hand, the three other core job categories (senior managers, architects and designers, and interns) actually saw an increase, which means that principals and partners gave modest raises to their employees, even as their own take-home shrank.
Unfortunately, when pay is adjusted for inflation, pretty much everyone came out a loser. As I read the numbers, however, the important takeaway is not just that compensation is down, which one would expect under the circumstances, but that the percentage of income lost decreases the further down one looks on the totem pole: senior staff lost 3 percent in the three-year gap between surveys; architects and designers lost 1.7 percent; and interns lost 0.3 percent. Everybody got pinched, but the pain that they felt was proportionate to their station. Those who make the least money took the smallest cut.
There are plenty of reasons why the numbers may have played out the way they did. But, ever the optimist, I believe that the proportional income distribution evident in the 2011 survey was at least in part the result of deliberate action—and wise leadership—on the part of architecture executives. A proportional compensation policy is good business: There’s no long-term value, but there is long-term harm, to be had in alienating prospective architects and future industry leaders by offering a low entry-level pay grade. Architecture should attract, and retain, the very best minds possible.
Moreover, a proportional pay policy is the right thing from an ethical perspective. Families supporting themselves on less than $50,000 a year feel small fluctuations in income much more acutely than families making six figures. I know I couldn’t look my staff in the eye if I ever took a raise at their expense. It makes me proud to think that the profession’s leadership feels the same way.