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a PhD in live projects and architectural education

AJ: Students ready to work for free

A troubling set of results from a survey by the British  Architects Journal has revealed the nervousness of UK architecture students approaching the end of the 2008/2009 academic year and an undeniably difficult job market.

Students ready to work for free
Source: http://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/daily-news/students-ready-to-work-for-free/5202333.article
‘Desperate’ students unable to gain a placement turn to unpaid work
21 May, 2009 | By Richard Waite

Almost half of architecture students looking for work experience in their year out would be willing to work for free, according to the AJ’s State of Architectural Education survey.

With almost two-thirds of students still unable to find suitable work experience (see pages 8-11), the AJ’s online study of more than 400 students revealed that 46 per cent of those seeking placements would not demand payment. Over 70 per cent said they would try to find paid work elsewhere to subsidise their architectural experience.

Jessica Noel, a third-year student at Strathclyde University, said an ‘air of desperation’ was forcing aspiring architects to offer themselves for nothing.

Noel said: ‘Some students feel desperate after finding that the university is unlikely to take on students into fourth year if they are unable to gain a work placement. Others are willing to work for free because they want to get through the system as quickly and painlessly as possible.’

But the RIBA said the trend was ‘potentially damaging’, both for graduates and for the profession. David Gloster, the RIBA’s head of education, said: ‘Although unpaid work can have value as experience, it is essentially exploitative if the relationship becomes protracted.’

Stuart Piercy of Piercy Conner Architects agreed: ‘I am fund­amentally against working for nothing. It is clearly a very privileged position for the lucky few whose parents can afford it, devalues what we do and sends the wrong messages to our clients.’

But Lorenzo Dwyer, a sixth-year student at Sheffield University, defended the decision by some students to work for free.

He said: ‘Non-paid employment is one of the few real options now remaining for out-of-work student architects. Free work is a strategic, long-term move to secure future paid employment and advance one’s architectural know-how.’

Of particular interest are the comments being posted by readers on the AJ’s online pages. The overwhelming majority disagree with the position taken by the second student quoted in the article (full disclosure: I graduated from Sheffield last year) and I am also very suspicous of any architecture student or architect who choose to enter into a contract of unpaid employment. At what point does an unpaid architectural intern become worthy of being paid? And why can’t his desk be occupied by another  Keiran Long, editor of the AJ, makes the case convincingly in his associated leader article:

Should you allow students to work for free in your practice? As a journalist, I can’t claim any moral high ground. People in my profession regularly work for free to get a foot in the door at the beginning of their careers.

We also know that architecture is not generally a high profit business, and especially not now. But there’s one important consideration. The culture of free working that exists in architecture perpetuates the stereotype of architecture as a male-dominated, upper-middle-class profession. If it has proven difficult enough to make the profession more diverse during the boom years, that will only be exacerbated if every practice takes the easy option of free labour.

There will, inevitably, be some architecture students with independent means who will be able to afford to work for free during this recession. There will also, however, be a much larger number of students who we may never see in the profession again. If the last recession in the UK is anything to go by, we are likely to see a generational blip that will be represented in the social make-up of the architectural profession for years to come. A dispersal of architecture graduates in the years 1990 – 1992 into other professions is still reported today in anecdotal evidence of a below-average proportion of practicing architects who are now in their forties. If the bold efforts of architecture schools to re-balance their intake and output to more closely represent Britain’s ethnic and social diversity is undone, the profession as a whole will be much worse off. And as a white, middle class and privately educated man I don’t think that’s an unreasonable suggestion.

As a fundamental principle, I oppose the idea of architecture students working in architectural practices for free. If a practice isn’t capable of employing people, that means that there isn’t the work to be done in the first place. And while almost any practice can keep employees busy with unpaid competition entries, if an architecture student is prepared to be working on them for free for another architect I don’t understand why they wouldn’t consider doing that entry on their own. You may get the luxury of a full equipped office and more practice-experienced colleagues to guide you, but you will be sacrificing the last remaining sparks of independence that a recession can ignite in graduates who are suddenly shocked into considering alternatives to the normative career path.

The architecture profession generally moves with the speed and manoueverability of an ocean liner. The saddest outcome of this recession is not that numerous projects are on indefinite hold, but that we risk perpetuating much that is bad with the profession: unhealthy, unsustainable and sometimes even exploitative working practices that once again favour the wealthy, the middle class and (I think it’s fair to propose) men. And this is on top of a normative practice situation in which architects routinely work unpaid overtime, either because they regard their work as a labour of art or because they aren’t capable of explaining the value of their work to their clients. As one of my supervisors said recently, ‘you don’t haggle with a dentist, so why haggle with an architect?’

To bring this back into the focus of this blog, I should re-assert that I’m studying practices in architectural education that engage students with non-academic situations, contexts and people. An interesting discourse seems to suggest itself from all this about the opportunity for architecture schools to contribute to a broader professional and non-professional awareness of how architects and architecture students practice and what we are capable of doing. Returning to a model of unpaid articuled pupilage does not seem to me to be a positive development.

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