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AJ Roundtable: Bridging the skills gap

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The Architects’ Journal and recruitment specialist Bespoke invited a panel of experts to share their thoughts on how best to recruit and retain the right staff

The skills shortage remains the most pressing issue facing architecture practices today. As the economy continues to grow and workloads increase, how do practices win the war for talent?  The Architects’ Journal and recruitment agency Bespoke invited an expert panel to discuss how working culture, career development, training, communication and clever resourcing can put your practice ahead of the game.

John McAslan + Partners director Natasha Manzaroli opened the discussion by explaining how instituting flexible working hours at the firm had helped McAslan retain skills, particularly those of parents with young children. She said: ‘We have a lot of female architects who have two or three children and who have built up huge knowledge of the practice. A lot of the time they are not ready to come back full-time.’ 

Hawkins\Brown founder Roger Hawkins told the meeting about his firm’s ‘80/20’ working week practice. He revealed that 10 per cent of Hawkins\Brown architects work a four-day week on jobs in hand, with the fifth day set aside to pursue other projects or research.


He said: ‘We introduced the 80/20 working approach over the past year. Our staff still work five days in the office but core time is four days a week with one day a week a bit more relaxed.  We encourage our associates, for example, to do a bit of training or research with their 20 per cent.’

Hawkins added that the 80/20 model – which has also been used by Google – had helped with resourcing, as extra staff could be drafted onto a project if the team was struggling to meet a deadline. ‘It has created an internal float of resource, which is self-managed,’ he said.

David King-Smith, founding director of 5plus Architects, said the skills shortage and higher workloads, was making it tougher generally for practices to offer flexible working hours, despite its advantages.

The panel agreed that the benefits of hiring part-time staff were often overlooked. Lindsay Urquhart of Bespoke said there was a perception among her job-seeking clients that architecture practices were not interested in hiring part-timers. But Festus Moffat, director at John Robertson Architects, and Manzaroli agreed that part-time working could solve some resource issues. Manzaroli said: ‘We have skill gaps within the practice at technical and delivery level and the experience we need will come from architects who are at a different point in life [than those just entering the profession]. I interviewed somebody recently who initially didn’t want to come for an interview because he thought we would not be interested in hiring someone who only wanted to work a four-day week.’

Broaching the topic of training, Hawkins said the sophistication of the Revit software used for building information modelling (BIM) meant architects nowadays needed to have greater technical skills. He said: ‘We have embedded BIM technicians into each of our studios because even well-trained architects haven’t got Revit skills.’


Festus Moffat, director, John Robertson Architects

Wilkinson Eyre practice director Leah Nicholls said that BIM co-ordinators were most in demand. She said: ‘Our designers will pick up any tool that will help them to design, but BIM co-ordinators who also understand design are rare.’

The challenge posed by Revit, said Duggan Morris co-founder Joe Morris, was how to use the software effectively. ‘It is, if anything, too intelligent and, if you haven’t got the skills to match it, you get sent down a particular route,’ he said.

He added that Duggan Morris regularly tested staff’s Revit skills. ‘The practice will be fully Revit-skilled within a year,’ he said. 

The panel agreed that staff from the United States and Australia were generally more advanced in their Revit skills than their UK and European counterparts. However, it seems to be becoming harder for them to obtain visas.

‘We’ve had Canadians and Americans working for us, but finding a way through their visa application is extremely difficult. Some of our current staff, who are invaluable to the practice, we could not now employ,’ said Moffat.

Hawkins noted that overseas students were particularly hard-hit by visa restrictions. He said: ‘You can be a few months from taking your Part 3 and your visa runs out. It is ridiculous that the government is attracting students to come to our universities, taking their money for seven years and then packing them home without giving them their final qualification.’


Joe Morris, co-founder, Duggan Morris Architects

When it came to resourcing, King-Smith advocated the use of contract staff strongly, saying they had integrated well into his practice’s working culture. He said: ‘They have a can-do attitude and a sense of responsibility that isn’t always there in people embedded in offices,’ he said.

All the members of the panel said they employed staff on permanent, rather than fixed-term contracts on the whole. Most, however, indicated they would consider other types of employment contract.

Morris said he used the probation period to minimise the risks associated with hiring full-time permanent staff. He said: ‘We will extend  [the probation period] by as long as the staff member is willing for it to be extended and until we are absolutely sure that they fit. That is our safety net.’

While some members of the panel said the quality of their practice’s work was the best recruitment tool, an attractive working culture was also important in beating the skills shortage.

Manzaroli said: ‘Great architecture is going to motivate and attract talent, but I think we have to work hard on communication and make it a collaborative process, so everyone feels they are contributing to the practice’s success.’

However, Urquhart said the new generation of workers was concerned about work-life balance and seemed less career-minded than previous ones. King-Smith agreed. He said: ‘I think that comes out of their experience of college, having greater debt and seeing it more as a job.’ However, the shift in attitude was having a positive knock-on effect in practice.


Helen Ratcliffe, head of HR, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

‘This different type of candidate coming through is a good thing for the profession. For example, the amount of free or speculative work has been trimmed down,’ said King-Smith. 

For AHMM’s head of HR Helen Ratcliffe, a good working culture implied looking after your people by allowing them to focus on their strengths.

 She said: ‘We have an awful lot of support staff who are valued just as highly as the creative team. We also recognise talent, so even if you are at a very junior level, you are still invited to design reviews.’

Ratcliffe added that AHMM tried to promote internally. ‘We want people to feel they have a future at AHMM,’ she said.

Morris said he was trying to avoid creating ‘a traditional hierarchy’ in his practice.

He said: ‘We don’t want to fall into the trap of saying “you are really good and you have been with us six years so you are now an associate”. 

‘We are trying to think about research groups and committees and up-skilling, so that everyone from the fresh Part 1 to the technical director is talking about how we might, for example, develop a manifesto for housing.’


Lucy Cahill Bespoke
Roger Hawkins founding partner, Hawkins\Brown
Will Hurst, (chair) deputy editor, The Architects’ Journal
David King-Smith director, 5plus Architects
Natasha Manzaroli director, John McAslan + Partners
Festus Moffat director, John Robertson Architects
Joe Morris co-founder, Duggan Morris Architects
Leah Nicholls practice manager, Wilkinson Eyre
Helen Ratcliffe head of HR, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris
Lindsay Urquhart founder, Bespoke

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