Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The pros and cons of being an architect: correction/explanation

So I described the pros and cons of being an architect in my last post, and one of the cons I described was that we don't get paid super well.  I described this post to my husband, Guy, and he had an interesting take on that point.

"I don't know why people complain they aren't paid well as architects," Guy said.  "We're paid just a little less than engineers and pretty comparably to a lot of other professions."  The more I thought about this, the more I realized Guy was right.  Because architecture as a profession generally requires that you have certain types of degrees in order to even come in for an interview, it pays you for your experience, not your degree.  I always hate breaking that to the interns that come through our doors, because many of us--including me--have been told by our parents, teachers, and other adult authority figures to "go to college and get a good education and a good-paying job."  While college graduates still generally earn much more than high school graduates, a lot more people go to college these days than they did even 20 years ago.  This means there are a lot more college degrees floating around out there. which means that having a college degree doesn't necessarily set you apart in the workforce, depending on your job/career.  

Further complicating things (as described in the "more people go to college these days" link) is that depending on what your job/career is, you can make more with a lesser degree.  My sister in law (rock on, STL Fan!) makes more as an accountant than I do as an architect, even though she has a four-year bachelor's and I have a 4+2 yr M.Arch, and we have similar amounts of work experience.  The radiology techs at the hospitals I design make as much as I do or more, and the same goes for the licensed plumber who installs the toilets I draw.  The techs and the plumber have a degree/certificate thingy from a vocational/tech school, though the plumber might just have years of experience.

Another monkey wrench in the situation is some information I seem to recall reading a long time ago in Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickled and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America and I reread recently in Jean Twenge Ph.D's Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before.  The fact is that the cost of major life expenses such as housing, child care, and college educations have outpaced wages and even inflation.  Twenge notes that between 1997 and 2002, the amount Americans aged 25 to 34 spent on mortgage interest with up 24%; on property taxes, 15%; health insurance, 18%.  The median home price in the US jumped 14.7% from 2004 to 2005, the largest one-year jump in 25 years.  The amount of a family budget that went to the mortgage increased 69% from 1975 (my birth year) to 2000.  All the while their discretionary spending decreased, and even the income of men aged 25 to 34 decreased 17% from 1971 to 2002.  What this means is that almost regardless of what your major is in college and what kind of job you get when you graduate college, you're likely not going to make the bills.  Many intern architects get a second job for the first few years of their professional careers, or they get roommates.  Guy and I moved in together when I bought the Kappy Kitten Highrise partially because it made financial sense for us.  (Well, that and we luuuved each other.)

Last but not least, no matter what job you get when you graduate, your income isn't enough no matter what you make if you have crappy money management skills.  I'm amazed at the number of fresh-from-college interns who think they have to have a new or almost-new car or a loft apartment in one of Denver's new steel-and-glass highrises.  I had an intern who complained of his income to me one day at lunch, and then I saw him walk out at the end of the day and get into his brand new Audi--the turbo kind.  Mm-hmm.  One of the guys that Guy graduated college with makes $82,000 as an unlicensed architect (he's a really good designer and he changes jobs frequently, which gains him salary increases), and he complains to Guy and me about how poorly we're all paid (while Guy and I make $75,000 and $57,000 before taxes, respectively).  Thing is, this friend and his wife (who is also employed and has been employed for all but about 6 or 8 months of the past 8 years) live in a two-year old four-bedroom house with stainless steel appliances (they have no children), both purchased new cars last year (an Audi and a Toyota SUV), and they frequently go on cross-country or international trips.  They were recently lamenting to us how they've starting dining out "so rarely, like never, maybe once a week now and then" and all the other cost-cutting measures they'd been taking, and Guy shook his head while we were driving home from their house.  "What I wanted to say to them," Guy said, "was 'oh, so you're living the way Pixie and I have been living for about seven years now, congratulations' but I didn't have the heart."

I realize I've been going on for a while, but the whole "architects don't make any money" thing has to be mentioned with a caveat.  Being paid for your experience vs. degree, the cost of living increase, and having poor money management skills all play into the lack of income issue.

11 comments:

LisaS said...

love it! both the original post and this one. i'm also half of a two-architect family, and it's sometimes hard to keep perspective. we do make a good living compared to the average American, but i have to agree with you that i don't feel like i'm compensated in proportion with my education, experience & (especially) liability. glad i don't work with doctors (often) so i don't have to get out the world's tiniest violin (often) .... actually, i'm not glad cuz that's where the money is right now!

i'll have to come back and read more soon ... when i'm not supposed to be sending out drawings that just arrived!

bluearchitecture said...

The other aspect of architects' salaries is comparing how much it costs to become an architect (4+2 years of school, not making a decent living while starting to pay back the student loans, exam fees, professional organization fees like AIA, and other architect fees relating to NCARB and state boards) and comparing those costs with how much we're paid. And not to mention the costs associated with the liability involved for stamping drawings, and not so much relating to a building falling down and killing someone (which would mean the end of your architectural career) but the little things architects can get sued for such as improper egress design or too much sound transmission from one space to another.

Every job has its rough spots, but the tangible costs associated with becoming an architect don't add up with what we're paid. These costs are driving more people out of the profession, and with state boards instituting more strict regulations for becoming a licensed architect at least current architects will be able to earn more money in the future with the dwindling profession.

mizscarlett said...

if you can has dollars, send Kitty a real sweatshirt, plskthnx.

I just watched movie on her blog with the dreaded red sweatshirt of ignorant doom on her...

it made me sad for her. and the fact that she would wear it, take a movie of it and then BE SEEN IN PUBLIC INTERNETS WITH IT just.... well, there are no words.

Wilderness Gina said...

mizscarlet- would a Michigan State or U of Mich be better? They're both dark and don't show dirt... the only thing they have going for them.
Will the Last Person out of Michigan Please Turn Out the Lights?

Anonymous said...

What I get my schooling payed for, would it be worth it? I'm making 23,000.... can it be any worse... I feel I will be stuck if I don't go back to architecture...

Anonymous said...

It is amazing to me what people think is not enough. I earn $30K a year and have a college degree from a good school, but I still meet my bills and help support another person. It is enough to live on and I feel blessed. There are whole families living on less that $20K year. We need to get in perspective how much we really need in life to be happy: a good relationship, good food, a home that is not dangerous, and meaningful work. I feel absolutely blessed with my life. I hope you do too.

Mile High Pixie said...

You make a good point, Anon. Still, I would counter that it depends on where you live as to how far that $30K goes. For example, you would have to strip to absolute bare minimum expenses--including no traveling or birthday or holiday gifts--to live on $30K/yr in my neighborhood in Denver, and you probably flat out wouldn't be able to do it if you lived in New York City. It's about cost of living almost as much as it's about "what do we need to be happy." Still, you make a good point--do you really need a new car or a trip to the Turks and Caicos to feel blessed? Perhaps our blessings are closer than we realize.

Anonymous said...

wow! 57,000 and 75,000 per year??
that's incredible? some people i know have phd's blah blah blah (uhm engineering and architecture degrees included) and work experience AND if they are LUCKY to get a call back for an interview (many dont even though their resume is overflowing with qualifications) are getting offered BARELY 40,000 per year in many instances- and uhm this is in cities. on the other hand, I know people who have many connections and somehow snap up these wonderfully paid positions, but, if they are lucky have half the qualifications. Architecture is a funny profession, no? But hey, i suppose you will chalk it all up on the fact that you are both genius' the those stupid academic types (oh wait they have experience TOO) are just dumb or not engaging and charming as the rest of ya! *go back to sleep the world is A-ok for you* zzzzzzz

Mile High Pixie said...

Anon: I think you're missing the point of this and the previous post. Architects and (some) engineers are strangely underpaid compared to other American professions with similar educational and experience requirements and professional liability, but it also depends on what your costs of living are, both geographically and lifestyle. At the time I wrote this post, my $57K would allow me to live like Paris Hilton in my hometown back in Georgia. I could live even richer on it if I put less in my 401(k), but I'd rather invest in my future.

Also, I'm not sure where you got the entitlement aspect of these posts, which it sounds like you think I think I'm better than other architects. The reason your friends who are well-qualified architects and engineers with experience are getting offered crap wages right now is likely a combination of people being cheap and not wanting to pay them properly and the fact that the economy is still recovering and there's lots of competition for not that many jobs. I got a job without knowing anyone or anything out here in Denver back in 2000, and I think that's just because the office was really busy and I was lucky. The fact that I've kept my job is likely a combination of luck and hard work as well. I doubt it has anything to do with me (or my husband) being "charming" or "smart" or "engaging", as you assert. Furthermore, as long as my profession as a whole is put through the wringer everytime the economy even kinda-sorta tanks, the world is not "A-ok" for me, because what happens to my colleagues and compatriots affects me as well.

I realize I may be making this appeal to someone who many never read this blog again, but please in the future, I entreat you: read the post carefully and cool down before posting a misguided, short-sighted, accusatory comment. In other words: don't be a douche.

Anonymous said...

Im a non-licensed architect (insert shame emoticon) and completely pick up what ur puttin down. Pay is shit. Thats a fact. For the education, responsibility, hours, against the total cost of the project. For example, i make about 90k as a pm on a 20 million dollar project. The principle makes good money, but the person who actually works on (and literally saved) the project makes a mere 1.5% ( over about 3+ years).
Considering i work on more projects, i actually make much less for the amount of money changing hands.
Ultimately, im a moron. I have no other explanation....

Anonymous said...

Here in the UK, architecture is considered a solid middle-class job (the definition of middle-class job being anywhere between school teacher and CEO. When I lost my job in psychology I applied for a PA job in the architecture company where my partner works. He has 4 years experience plus his 5 years of uni, so it came as a big surprise to us when I got the job and found I was making as much money as him (I have 5 year uni too...but not in 'PA studies', if you know what I mean). Since then I've been offered more responsibilities and a raise. Needless to say, considering the hours he puts in for deadlines, this has caused tensions betweens us. Doesn't anyone tell architects at university that they'd get more typing the reports than writing them?