How Academia Prepares Students to Be Employed

By Nicholas E. Vlattas, AIA, and Deborah Marquardt

A recent report from the Georgetown Center on Education suggesting that architecture graduates have the highest rate of joblessness, 13.9 percent, is getting a lot of press. “Want a Job? Go to College and Don’t Major in Architecture,” shouted a headline in The New York Times in January.

Many of us have weathered recessions in our careers, but this one somehow feels longer and deeper than the others. That’s an unfortunate thing for promising young talent emerging from architecture schools—and for firms that might miss out on dynamic new talent.

Is this startling statistic the result of our industry being particularly hard hit? Or does it have something to do with architecture education? For example, would knowing more about the business of architecture make young people more bullet-proof in a profession that too often adopts the old maxim—“last hired, first fired”—when having to cut expenses?

We turned to the leaders of Virginia architecture schools for their thoughts. Their responses were forthright, to be sure.

“Our focus is on excellence, and our graduates are finding employment,” says Robert Easter, chair of the Department of Architecture at Hampton University.

“U.Va.’s goal is to make our students be the hardest to fire—make them the most useful, hardworking, and prepared,” replies Kim Tanzer, dean of the university’s School of Architecture.

“It’s easy to slip into the ‘now’ world and forget historical precedent,”  adds Jack Davis, dean of architecture, College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech. “In 1998, another faculty member and I sat on an AIA panel asking why architecture schools were producing so many architects while the economy was in shambles. By 2003, our graduates were getting signing bonuses because of a shortage.”

The difficult academic balance

The question of curriculum balance clearly has been on educators’ minds. Architect magazine entered the debate a few months ago with a cover entitled “What Are We Teaching?” It describes architecture schools “grappling with the shifting realities of architecture and how best to prepare students for what lies ahead.” The article described a new certificate program at the University of Texas at Arlington designed to get architects to think about how their designs can create more value by creating more revenue. For their part, Columbia and Harvard are breaking down “firewalls” among programs such as real estate, architecture, and urban design.

“The education of an architect is a continually challenged balance between knowledge that is timeless and information that is timely,” Davis says. “We don’t discourage the student who wishes to minor in business administration—or those who go for an MBA after a BArch—just as we don’t discourage advanced degrees in historic preservation, construction management, planning, or urban design.  Each of these, and many others, are valuable contributors to our profession.” Yet, he says, “to replace basic and fundamental design education coursework, while also jeopardizing professional accreditation, will only weaken the substance of architecture and associated fields.”

Tanzer agrees there is a tension between giving students skills they need to get hired in the current market versus providing skills that will serve them for 30 years. “The challenge,” she says, “is what to compress into the program?”  U.Va. offers several classes focused on broadening students’ capacity to engage the current job market.  For example, in “Design Entrepreneurship” alumni mentors teach individual students to balance income and expenses. Tanzer’s “entrepreneurial students” have prepared business plans for projects as diverse as an urban farm in Ohio and a self-sufficiency program for African women, in addition to design-build projects that apply the art of design to the bottom line.

Easter says Hampton’s five-year master’s program devotes six hours to professional practice issues.

Training graduates as responsibility and opportunity

Our firm’s Summer Design Scholar Program nourishes us with young design talent. Sometimes we are able to make full-time hires from this pool. These freshly minted grads are fluent in technology and brimming with ideas, providing much-needed mentorship to senior staff who are not as intuitive with new design tools. They are bright and eager to take initiative, though few have thought much about the business of architecture. Alexandria Mathieu, a recent scholar and U.Penn. MArch grad, and now a firm member, enrolled in the Virginia Society AIA’s ELA program to fill that void. She’s been blogging about it on our company intranet:
“This session’s theme focuses on firm leadership, ownership and transition, small business management issues, financial planning, and financial management. I’ll tell you, my head was spinning … School doesn’t prepare you (enough) for this—which brings us to a whole other set of discussion points and just another reason why this program is incredibly valuable.”

If graduates like Alexandria are today’s benchmark, we have to say: “Thank you, Academy. They arrive very well-prepared and are resourceful about getting the rest of what they need.”

So maybe it’s not a question of what architecture students are being taught but how well all of us are preparing for a profession that must adapt to a changing world—one that won’t look a lot like yesterday.

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.