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.’
‘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.’