Gabriela Marks

The profession of architecture has distinguished itself by combining art, science, and ingenuity to elevate the human experience. Our future is limited only by our ability to adapt to the society we serve. The next generation of professionals, Generation Z, typically considered to be those born from 1996 to 2010, along with their older siblings, millennials, will shape society far into the next century.

We must ask ourselves, “Will we leave a profession that future generations will want to join and to make a lifelong career?”

AIA’s recently released Compensation Report contains good news and raises a few areas of concern for the profession. The survey reports that nonresidential construction activity has increased 40% in the past seven years, and that the decade-plus business expansion has led to increased compensation levels for architecture positions at U.S. firms.

In my view, what bears directly on the future of the profession is how we pay recent graduates. The report found that recent graduates of architecture programs in more than two dozen metropolitan areas—from Atlanta to Pittsburgh, to Minneapolis to San Jose—earned on average total compensation of $55,800. While that is more than the average of all U.S. workers ($47,060), it is well below comparable professions.

For instance, the average starting salary for a first-year attorney, according to the National Association for Law Placement, was about $100,000. While the average salary of a first-year medical resident is approximately $59,000, the average salary of a family physician, which tends to be on the low side of the physician pay range, more than doubles to $138,000 in just a few years.

Further, consider that where you begin a career as an architect is a significant factor in your financial security and stability. Let’s look at two examples: Pittsburgh and San Jose.

According to the Compensation Report, San Jose had the highest average pay, at $65,880. However, much of that salary is consumed by the region’s high cost of housing. According to the American Communities Survey, which is conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, the median rent in the area is $2,100 per month—or 38.5% of the reported average annual compensation. For context, the federal government considers households who spend more than 30% of income on rent as “rent-burdened.”

On the other end of the spectrum, in Pittsburgh, which reports the lowest average salary of the 27 metro areas included in the compensation report, the average rent is about 17% of income.

Beyond financial stress, there is the issue of calibrating the demands of business and the expectations of home life. According to most studies, the next generation to enter the workforce wants more of a balance between work and home. A 2018 survey by Ernst & Young found that 73% of Generation Z respondents cited “having a good work-life balance” as the biggest measure of success. Half cited flexibility as a key priority when considering an employer.

The fact is, people don’t perform at their highest level if they are worried about keeping a roof over their heads or feeding their families as they pursue their dream. Further, the expectation of regular 80-hour workweeks is out of step with what the next generations want from their careers and employers.

To ensure that architecture is a 21st century profession that is regarded as a trusted partner for progress and a leader in the community, we must change how we educate, compensate, and motivate our workforce.

Ultimately, accomplishing our long-term goals—mitigating climate change and ensuring social justice and economic opportunity— comes down to attracting and retaining the best minds and talent. It is clear to me that if we want to continue to do good, we must do right by everyone. That means ensuring that those in the profession (both those working to join it and those already in it) are treated with respect and dignity, as individuals and as professionals throughout their careers.