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How can the profession make students more business-savvy?

Student Shows 2014: Essay by Sadie Morgan

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It’s a familiar enough story: a graduate comes in for interview, brimming with ideas and imagination. They get the job, start well enough, and everyone’s happy - until one day they’re late with a project, fail to grasp basic costings or simply fall to pieces in a presentation. So what’s gone wrong? Why is it that graduates sometimes seem ill-equipped? And how can we improve the situation for employers and graduates alike?

It’s easy to say that graduates just aren’t as good as they were, but in my experience they’re no less diligent, intelligent or motivated as any previous generation. What they are disadvantaged by, however, are the profound changes we have seen in education, particularly in the state sector. But it’s also pointless griping that universities are to blame. Tutors are as dedicated and motivated as ever, but they simply don’t have the capacity to fulfill an ever-expanding curriculum and meet impossible targets.

I, like many others, had an education that might be considered lavish nowadays, with generous space, a tutor (or two) at least once a day, technicians on hand to help make my models and only short queues for the printers. Crucially, we had a studio environment where the sharing of ideas within teams was built into the very fabric of the course. Students now have less tutor contact time and have to fight hard - or stay up all night - to use the over-subscribed equipment. And the loss of a studio environment denies them the social fabric within which they can develop the soft skills that they need when they enter employment. I’m not saying that I agree with or condone these changes in education, but we do have to acknowledge them and start dealing with their fall out instead of playing a blame game where we’re all losers in the end.

So what’s the answer? First, we stop bemoaning the deficiencies of graduates and universities alike. Second, we celebrate the ideas and energy that graduates bring, as well as the strengths that their education has given them - be that the precision of the Germans and Swiss, the flair of the Italians, the detailing of the Spanish or the creative and pragmatic outlook of our own British graduates. Thirdly, we take responsibility for helping graduates to develop the skills that they need, such as understanding costs and their impact on profit and loss, how to present to colleagues and clients, how to network and basic time management.

At dRMM, we run management programmes aimed at newly qualified graduates and those about to take their Part 3. The programme is built around five core subjects: people management, business strategy, business financials, managing yourself and personal impact. The courses take place off-site in small groups of around six, often with people not directly involved in their own projects. Some are more confident with the money side, others with presenting or marketing strategies, but everyone learns from each other, exchanging their skills and experience. They come back empowered, understanding that there is more to running a business than just producing the work. Coupled with an extensive programme for the senior team in leadership and management, for which we recently won a government grant, it means that so far this year over 70 per cent of our team has had training in soft skills and business skills. And it seems to work. The team has appreciated that we want to invest in them, and not in skills that are just about ‘churning out the work’. But we haven’t just focused on training courses. Within the office we have put in place activities that make the studio ethos of team working central to our daily practice. This ranges from more formalised peer reviews and directors’ crits, to sharing lunch once a week and a regular pin-up with beers and occasional invited guests. Open debate is expected, as is presentation by the whole team, not just the project architects. This simple sharing of a drink or two, plus a collegiate atmosphere, is a great way to help even the most junior member of the team explain projects or details that they’re passionate about.

And, in perhaps the most sensitive step in this process of creating a shared experience, once a quarter we present the company’s profit and loss figures to the team. It is through making everyone responsible for understanding the implications of where and how money is spent that we can set out targets and feed back updates on progress, cash flow and work predictions that everyone can understand. In this way the team can see why we need to push for work, or why what felt like a quiet time was really the calm before the storm.

So let’s start taking responsibility for those of us who are just starting out. The reality of the next decade is that graduates are going to have fewer and fewer soft skills and business training, as the priority within a cash-strapped education system will be teaching them the basics of good architecture (as it should be). That means employers will simply have to help provide graduates with some of the skills they need. Yes, it costs money, and no, it’s not what has traditionally been seen as the core of our industry. But helping graduates gain key skills is good for business and has wider effects that are positive and desirable for all.

At dRMM we’ve had our best ever year, and we think that’s thanks in part to creating a more cohesive, better informed and financially savvy workforce, of which our young architects are a key part. And rather than preaching that ‘our way is best’, I would simply ask that we all take a look at present-day realities and work out what we can do to help one another thrive, for the good of the whole profession.

Sadie Morgan is a founding director of dRMM and president of the Architectural Association

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