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AJ Special Report: What can be done for jobless students?

Only a third of this year’s Part 1 and Part 2 architecture students will find year-out work experience

The profession, students and architecture schools are struggling to agree on how to tackle the growing work placement crisis.

With just weeks left before the end of term, the AJ’s State of Architectural Education survey shows that an alarming 61 per cent of those responding had still not found a year-out position. And one in five of those said they had given up looking.

Suffering the effects of the severe global economic downturn, practices cannot afford to take on as many students (AJ 26.02.09). Meanwhile, the number of wannabe architects continues to rise – university applications are up 6.7 per cent this year.

‘The implications for the profession are significant, and I don’t expect the effects will be limited to this cohort of students,’ said David Dernie, head of Leicester School of Architecture.

Possible solutions to have been mooted include changes to the current year-out arrangements and even a temporary suspension of the year out.

Dernie added: ‘The post-Part 1 year out is a habit, rather than a necessity. When times are good it is probably a good thing. But it does depend on the experience.

‘I think schools need to take a lead on this and focus on a more flexible delivery of programmes. The days of the rigid institution are over.’

His view is echoed by the Association of Consultant Architects, which in March this year wrote to all heads of school, asking them to waive the schools’ requirement for the academic year 2009-2010, ‘…since it is neither an RIBA nor an ARB requirement for students to have any professional experience before starting their Part 2 course’.

The number of applications from disheartened Part 1 students forced to stay in education and start their diploma in September has rocketed.

At Westminster University, for instance, applications are up by 50 per cent and the number of applicants is expected to approach 800 eventually. Other schools are reporting similar figures.

Yet, of the 400 students surveyed by the AJ, only 6 per cent called for the 12-month in-practice work experience
period to be dropped completely.

Rather, the results showed, students want practices and schools to do more to help them gain relevant experience. Half of all respondents said that firms needed to do more to help students. A sizeable 12 per cent said practices were letting down the next generation of architects.

Meanwhile, 45 per cent argued that firms should be forced to take on year-out students.

In Scotland, the RIAS is looking at that issue. Later this week, Gordon Smith, co-founder of Smith Findlay Architects, >> and the RIAS’ education committee convener, will send a letter to every Scottish practice suggesting an innovative ‘two-for-one’ strategy.

According to Smith, a student need only work a 22-hour week to comply with the Professional Experience and Development Record (PEDR) regulations, so firms could take on two students for the same price and effectively cover a full-time position.

Smith said: ‘The situation is pretty disastrous at the moment and one measure alone is not going to alter things… What is needed is a cumulative effect
of smaller initiatives. But this suggestion would give two people an opportunity.’

He added: ‘If they chose to work for 35 hours, that’s up to them. They would only get paid for 20 hours but, whatever they do, they must not work for nothing.’

Not every firm has backed away from supporting the next generation of architects and there are still practices committed to taking on year-outers.

Andrew Morris, commercial director of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, said the practice currently employs six students a year, paying them each £20,000, although it had taken on as many as a dozen at a time when business was booming in 2007.

Despite recent redundancies – the practice announced in March that it was shedding 35 staff – the firm has vowed to continue with its student year-out programme.

Morris said: ‘We believe we have an obligation to support the process and, if practices like ours can’t do it, then students are going to be in real trouble.

‘There’s also a selfish reason for our commitment. We have found our students to be a tremendous success, very good employees, and contribute generally to the office. The day we stopped doing it would be a very sad day.’

But Morris was not so sure about the Scottish two-for-one job share proposal. He said: ‘It’s a practical issue, not a financial one. It could bring about a lack of continuity in students’ work.’ 

Elsewhere in the country, other proposals have emerged, including a pilot bursary scheme in Yorkshire, funded in part by the regional development agency Yorkshire Forward.

The brainchild of Irena Bauman, co-founder of Bauman Lyons Architects, the scheme is backed by Yorkshire Forward in tandem with the regions’ schools of architecture (Huddersfield, Sheffield University, Sheffield Hallam and Leeds).

Under the initial plans, 60 per cent of a student’s placement would be financed by the government’s Train to Gain (TtG) fund, with the remaining 40 per cent funded by the practice.

Under its government remit, TtG money has to be spent on research. So, as well as learning the practical side of an office, the selected students – at first numbering about 10 – would carry out research beneficial for the region, the practice and the schools: investigating low-carbon housing, for instance.

Bauman said: ‘The intention is not only to create jobs for students, but also to get us all working together to strengthen the region and to create excellence in the built environment.

‘We are also hoping to influence architectural education and practice by developing a tradition of practice and research within the profession.’

In Liverpool, the RIBA North West and the Liverpool Architectural Society are consid­ering lending their support to a new workshop initiative, Unit 4, aimed at graduating students working with the city’s Static Gallery.

Billed, again, as a ‘research programme’, the scheme will involve architects, artists and the public and will overlap with the RIBA’s own student initiative. The society would co-ordinate the involvement of local architects wishing to work alongside student groups, enabling some measure of overlap with practice for the purposes of the PEDR practical training record.

Meanwhile, the University of Westminster has landed a £400,000 cash pot from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, intended to offer training and ‘skills enhancement’ to unemployed built environment professionals, including new graduates unable to find work.

There are, besides, other career paths which, according to the AJ survey, are not being championed by the schools.

Peter King, a qualified architect who left the profession to set up The Rooflight Company, said: ‘Right through every architecture course it is always assumed you will be an architect at the end of the journey. Little peripheral vision is afforded by the schools towards alternative career paths, such as construction management or product design.

‘Students only tend to consider a different career when they have failed to get a job in architecture; they consider anything else a last resort,’ he added.

 

Case history: India Wright, third-year student at London South Bank University

I am about to complete my BA and should be embarking upon my year-out work experience, which for the past three years I’ve looked forward to, impatient to be part of the ‘real world’ of architectural practice. Instead, I am anxious over my looming, almost certain, unemployment.

The number of architects joining the dole queue has risen by 860 per cent from last year. Friends in practice tell me about redundancies at their offices following suspension of projects, while others with their own practices are getting applications from qualified architects with families to support. The message is that priority will not be given to inexperienced Part 1s for the few scarce jobs. At my institution, we are being told to apply for our diploma now or go and get any sort of work to gain ‘life experience’. With competition for diploma places now having apparently trebled, I’m facing a spell at McDonald’s, and the country an impending skills gap.

I took a risk when commencing my degree. But then it didn’t seem like a gamble. I agreed to take on a tuition fee loan to cover the cost of my education (which, three years ago, was bumped up to £3,000 a year, regardless
of economic background), in addition to a student loan to cover the cost of living. I assumed, in line with the New Labour dream, that work was guaranteed upon graduation, especially since I was undertaking professional training. While I am angry at the government for not having the foresight to predict that its reckless consumer culture would result in a downturn, it is not to blame for my position in the job market. But I am indignant at the realisation that after, three years’ study, I am now in £25,000 of debt to the government, with the very real possibility of my qualification being effectively meaningless, if I cannot continue my training. The high price tag somehow seemed easier to swallow before. That a generation is saddled with this almost unavoidable mountain of debt, with ever-decreasing prospects of work, seems inconceivable, and quite wrong.

 

The RIBA’s top tips for finding work experience

 Tips for CVs

  • Create a graphically appealing CV with an emphasis on the practical experience you have
  • Write a brief, but specific, cover letter to the practice
  • Follow up CVs and letters

Tips for interviews

  • Find out all you can about the practice before the interview
  • Edit your portfolio to A2 size at the most
  • Don’t attempt to show too much work — a five-minute display may be enough
  • This is not a design jury, so the theoretical context of your projects may be of less interest than the more practical issues
  • Let the interviewer do the talking

Readers' comments (1)

  • Is this situation not a perfect example of RIBA practice? Fees are paid, affliations accepted but when the 'new' generation who are not yet in the 'old boys club' ,are suffering they come up with nothing. Is Sunand Prasad enjoying the prestige of the title being RIBA president or does he intend to take some action on one of the main issues that not only is effecting the profession today, but will have a profound effect on the profession over the next 10+years.

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