Wednesday, April 29, 2009
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.