The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has addressed a longstanding sore point in the profession, the use of unpaid labor. Last week, RIBA’s president, Ruth Reed, announced that member firms must pay interns at least minimum wage starting on July 1. Firms that fail to comply will lose their chartered status, which RIBA confers as “a mark of quality.”
The impetus for the new rule, Reed said, grew out of her “day job” as a professional studies advisor at the school of architecture of Birmingham City University, “overseeing students’ practical experience.” In that position, she said, she has witnessed a “rocketing” in the number of students who were not being paid.
The problem became more urgent, Reed says, when Britain’s government, in a reform of higher education funding, announced that fees at universities would rise 200 percent for the next academic year.
For architecture students, “it’s the perfect storm--low employment opportunities because of the recession and the trebling of fees,” Reed says. As in the U.S., prospective architects must receive several years’ professional experience before sitting for licensing exams, which makes them easy prey for firms seeking free labor.
Reed worries that, in the future, “who goes into the profession will be based not on ability, but on ability to pay.” She adds: “I think the profession needs to protect the next generation.”
In the U.S., reports of unpaid internships are widespread. Rick Bell, president of the New York chapter of the AIA, said its policy is simple: “Interns must be paid.” The national AIA also frowns on the practice. Spokesman John Schneidawind said in a statement that AIA policies “discourage” the practice of using unpaid interns. For example, a member found to be using unpaid interns is not "allowed to be an AIA officer, a speaker at AIA conventions and other events" and is "ineligible for AIA Fellowship
and for its Gold Medal and other honors and awards,” the statement said.
In addition, Schneidawind pointed out, architects must comply with state and federal labor laws. “A member’s knowing failure to comply with legal requirements,” his statement said, “could make the member subject to appropriate discipline.” Even in the U.K., firms that use unpaid interns will not lose their licenses to practice, Reed says. That penalty “would have to be decreed by the government.”
On the website of the British publication Building Design, bdonline.co.uk, RIBA’s announcement was greeted with enthusiasm, though a few commenters noted that even the minimum wage (currently equivalent to about $10 an hour for workers 21 and over) is too low, and others worried that some students may simply lose their jobs now that employers have to pay them.