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‘Work for free’ poll provokes fierce debate

Architects and students divided on whether unpaid work placements amount to exploitation

Last week’s revelations in the AJ that nearly half of architecture students would work for free on their year out have provoked a strong reaction from the profession.

Responses ranged from condem­nation of students for devaluing the profession, to accusations that architectural practices are blocking students from gaining experience.

The AJ’s State of Architectural Education survey showed that 46 per cent of those seeking placements this summer would not demand payment, at a time when two-thirds had yet to find work experience.

Commenting online on the AJ’s website, Ralph Kent said: ‘To offer your services for nothing to a profitable firm just degrades your self-esteem and contributes to an erosion of industry value. Architects are already terrible accountants and economic forecasters; we don’t need to add this in a new precedent. Once this trend has started, it will be irreversible, regardless of the underlying economic climate.’

His sentiment was echoed by a number of online commentators. ‘Accepting students who want to work for free is quite immoral and exclusionist,’ said one. ‘We don’t want to end up like the fashion industry, whose figureheads throw money around and then complain that they can’t afford to pay interns. Moral reasons aside, having to pay your staff for the work they do is one of the things that keeps an architect’s feet on the ground.’

Others agreed, claiming the trend favoured students with parents able to support them, and would ‘keep the profession for the smug middle classes’.

Meanwhile, a clamour is growing for the RIBA to step in. Responding online, Samuel Anderson said: ‘When is the RIBA going to act on this and prevent any member office from employing people for free?’

His view was supported by David Humphreys, who favoured a firmer stance towards practices. He wrote: ‘Architectural practices that allow students to work for free should be brought within wage legislation and prosecuted.’

But not everyone believes unpaid work experience undermines the profession. David Lumb, of Leeds-based practice Architecture 519, who has been trying to set up an internship programme for struggling students, wrote: ‘Last week’s article defines the nub of the problem: nobody other than the students themselves want them to work for nothing. But shouldn’t their views be taken into account? The answer is yes. Our initiative, to provide everyone with access to an office, responds to this.’

Dominic Wright, commenting online, agreed: ‘Many degrees require students to take years in industry, without a wage, to complete their degrees. A few more thousand pounds of debt is effectively an investment in a lifetime’s career.’

And Selvarajah Gauthaman, who is on a Part 1 placement in Malaysia after struggling to find work in the UK, added: ‘The last thing students need is to have practitioners feeling sorry for them, but, at the same time, block free work. It isn’t exploiting students when they themselves choose to do it.’


A selection of comments from the AJ’s inbox

‘Students working for nothing sets a dangerous precedent’

‘If students are encouraged to work for nothing only the middle-class students will survive and it will become increasingly an elitist profession. We treat [our students] with respect and this also means that we pay them fairly for the valuable contribution that they make to this practice – we even pay sixth-formers on work experience £9 an hour. Anything less is exploitation and unacceptable for a professional firm. Let us pause and remember that students are only a small percentage of those employed in practices; if students are prepared to work for nothing, it sets a very dangerous precedent for the rest of us. Don’t do it.’

John Assael, Assael Architecture

‘Why should a cleaner be paid more than me?’

‘I have been unable to get any paid placement at all. Since October, I had have four different [unpaid] jobs. It’s absolutely outrageous that businesses must make this excuse of the recession as a reason to employ a student without paying them a penny. This is extremely depressing. The industry is losing out on some future big names. Why should a cleaner should be paid more than me? Does a cleaner work for free at first? No. No other profession does this.

Michaela Sedona, graduate

‘A few more thousand pounds of debt is an investment in a career’

‘Students from all classes have an uncanny way of making do financially. Third-year students are still eligible for free student overdrafts, as well as what is now a zero per cent student loan and grants from the government’s Student Finance. On top of that, many universities offer hardship funds and other grants and scholarships to assist students throughout their education. Many degrees require students
to take years in industry to complete their degrees, without a wage. People should stop being so ignorant. What does the profession know about the hardships of student finance? A few more thousand pounds of free debt is effectively an investment in a lifetime’s career.’

Dominic Wright

‘Have we not worked hard enough to earn a suitable salary?’

‘It is ridiculous that students would undersell themselves by working for nothing. Have we not worked hard enough during our degrees to earn something near a suitable salary? I have recently been made redundant from my practice, but fortunately have the required experience to go on to Part 2 in September. My parents have no chance of supporting me while I work for free, so I will unfortunately leave the profession for a few months to gain paid employment.’


Readers' comments (9)

  • "nobody other than the students themselves want them to work for nothing."

    David Lumb is clearly trying to justify the labour program at his company. Nobody WANTS to work for free. How can anyone even state something so preposterous? I have interned at companies where pretty much every employee had his or her own free assistant. At the close to ten companies I have interviewed at for internships over the past year, only one offered even a stipend. Unpaid interns/free labour is a despicable practice and it disgusts me. This exploitation has to stop.

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  • I think David Lumb has touched on an important point. Students who are out of work and seek unpaid internships aren't in the wrong - its a much better option than doing nothing. Employers who expect students to work for free are however in the wrong, particularly if the unpaid placement lasts longer than a month. As a (greatfully) employed part 2 student, I can sympathise with students who get unpaid work experience rather than leaving the industry, but not with companies who are exploiting them.

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  • I realise that architects spend longer in education than most other professions, but, I also know that working for free has been common in those other professions for many years. Many journalists, lawyers, teachers, and accountants have spent time on unpaid 'placements' or 'internships' early in their career to acquire experience. They view this as an investment. Why should architecture be in principle any different?

    The desire to pay people for work done is commendable, and I salute those firms principled enough to do it and to take the hit in their profits and partner drawings that will result. But I question the automatic assumption among some architecture students that (to quote one comment) they should be paid "more than a cleaner".

    The cleaner is at the peak of their earning potential. When that cleaner was a little boy/girl they probably didn't think "one day I'm going to clean toilets". The cleaner doesn't have a glittering career ahead of them culminating in a cleaning practice with their name on it. And most of all, the cleaner does something you don't want to do probably better than you could do it.

    To quote an unnamed Bolton Wanderers fullback fromt he 50's, when asked by a miner why he should be paid more for playing football than the miner earned, "you come mark Stanley Matthews Saturday. We'll see how you get on."

    Anyway, the simple fact for this generation of archtiecture students is that, if they want to gain experience, they may need to do it for nothing, or work in a bar.

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  • Ross

    The thing is, as well as pure graft on a lot of tedious projects that still need to be done in an office, a lot of students actually frequently bring a lot of experience to the office, particularly in teaching older, qualified architects new software, better ways, tricks. So I'm not entirely convinced by your cleaner analogy, I'm afraid.

    What's going to happen is that young architects are not going to share their knowledge willingly in a world where they are not being treated with fairness and respect, do the minimum of what they need to qualify and then set up themselves as soon as they can. I expect some of them will end up doing quite OK for themselves, given they've kept some of their light under a bushel for a while....

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  • Mmmmm, the cleaner analogy is poor, cleaners usually know what they're doing and don't need 24/7 supervision. This is as much a reflection on the educational establishments as it is of the students but as a sole practitioner who employs one or two people as and when my workload requires it I would never ever even consider employing a part I student if I had to pay them, not even sure if I'd employ one if they paid me! I'm not even sure I'd ever take on a part 3 again, most of them can't even write a letter or get my name right!

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  • I am an overseas student doing my masters in architecture. My finances come from an education loan with high interest. i had to do unpaid work as well. Initially, as a result of the mental pressure from not having a job i had to agree on working unpaid.I thought atleast i have a job. But later, since the Architect got used to not paying me, even when i asked for some paid work, they were feeling a bit hesitant. Further, i learnt that you dont get the same respect if you work for nothing. The people in the office began to think that an unpaid person's work is trivial. Adding more fuel to this fire, I kept spending money on travel and food on all those office days. Recession and the mental pressure about managing finances and loans sure had a toll on the work. Eventually after 6 months i had to quit. But i learnt that we should never work for free. I learnt from my architect when he said "his time was money". But he was failing to understand that "even my time is money", which was taken for granted that it is not.

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  • Re: Picture

    Is that what architects and students look like?

    They look so happy!

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  • Firstly, it's a bit of a myth that architects spend longer in education than most other professionals. It's 5 years for a bachelor's + master's degree (or equivalent). Many bachelors courses are now 4 years anyway. 1 year isn't that much difference. More specifically, I have 2 brothers: Bro A is a lawyer: 3 yr degree, 2 yr law conversion, 2 yr paid (very very lowly paid) articles = 7 yrs. Bro B is a lecturer. 3 yr degree, 1 yr masters, 3 yr PhD = 7 yrs (all from grants/scholarships). Being a professional requires this kind of education. But yes, it's expensive & a commitment.

    Secondly, the strength and weakness of architecture education is that it teaches nothing practical. It's a degree in creative thinking, but graduates are useless in a commercial environment. They either think they know it all and can't do jack, or their esteem is low and can't do jack. Either way, they're not actually worth jack at that point. Needs strong links between education & practice.

    Thirdly. The unscrupulous big names benefit big time because they can get armies of free labour working for nothing on competitions. 10 x 0 = 0. 100 x 0 = 0. If you're going to work for free, you may as well work for a big name. This clearly cocks up the system for the smaller firms, especially those who will pay fairly, who cannot hope to compete in competitions against armies of free labour.

    Fourthly. Obviously only the rich can afford to work for free which cocks it up for most others, however talented or willing. However, it shouldn't be seen as a personal decision - i.e. "I can afford to work for nothing, it's an investment, therefore it's my prerogative". Working for free cocks up the entire architect education/practice commercial ecosystem. Think of it like smoking. They are smoking in everyone else's space and making the environment unhealthy for everyone. If, in a non-smoking room, the rich students lit up because it was their prerogative, and everyone else had suffer the consequences, would that be ok? It has to be a blanket ban on free working.

    Fifthly. This brings me to the RIBA. It's up to them to do something about it proactively. It should be explicit in the code of conduct (RIBA & ARB). They should randomly audit companies to check everyone is being paid. Companies found guilty should not be eligible for awards or publishing for 5 or 10 years + fined + loss of title/chartership whatever. They also need to sort out the education/practice rift with organised links and sort out their validation of courses so they have more relevant education included - not hours & hours of designing coffins for dead heavy metal guitarists.
    But this limp-wristed, jelly-spined, lackadaisical boys club is only good for taking your money, looking at pictures and giving awards. It prefers keeping the moneyed rich and the powerful in power rather than trying to do something about the rotten core of this sad, irrelevant profession.

    Sixthly. Yeah, yeah, lack of self-respect and all that, but let's get to the nitty gritty, ok? Sort the profession out before everyone else sorts it out for us, while the students are all off designing underground caverns and ice-caves for gnomes and midgets. No wonder they're all f***ing unemployed for Pete's sake! They've been taught to think they're all Michaelangelos and the job market wants painters & decorators! And now even the painters are unrequired.

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  • Seventhly. One more thing ...
    For part 1-ers, if you can't work for an architect (for money), go get a job in a builder's merchant or a bulding site, or a concrete batching plant or a timber yard or something. Do you the world of good.

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