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Architectural practices must harness young talent to adapt for the future

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Best practice: There is a confidence about the young. They are hyper-connected, tech-savvy, entrepreneurial and collaborative, writes Hazel York

One of the great pleasures of my job as a senior partner at Hawkins\Brown is interviewing and employing talented young architects. I am regularly blown away by their creativity and by the sheer quality and quantity of the work in their portfolios.

In an interview about recruitment for the AJ last year (AJ 25.10.13) I was asked whether architectural education was preparing students for the workplace. For me, the bigger question is whether the workplace is really making the most of our talented young graduates.

There is much written about Generation Y, those in their 20s and early 30s. And it is true, they do have a different attitude to employment. It is no longer about security and a job for life, but about opportunities and self-improvement, flexibility and ‘me time’.

Generation Y is decreasingly motivated by money. Young architects in the UK, and in particular in London, often live in shared rented accommodation with little or no real prospect of owning their own homes, and so their aspirations are different.

As a good employer, this isn’t an excuse for poor pay, but it does mean finding new ways to attract and motivate staff, and at the top of that list is creative opportunity.  When I ask young people in our practice what motivates them, it is usually the quality of the work, closely followed by the opportunity for exposure and responsibility.

And herein lies the challenge. How do you provide this opportunity to young architects without exposing the business and clients to unnecessary risk? And how do you harness all that creative talent when there are toilet layouts and door schedules to be done? In our practice there is a new role emerging - that of the mature mentor, an experienced architect whose role is to guide and nurture our young team. We promote a culture where the best idea wins, where everyone’s thoughts and opinions are valued.

It would be easy to keep this approach hidden from clients, assuming they will see it as a risk. In fact, our experience has been quite the opposite. Exposing clients to young architects has proven to be a successful way of encouraging them to support innovation - so long as they can see this is all being done under the watchful eye of a few grey-haired mentors.

There is no doubt that the expense of completing an architectural education is putting off students from less privileged backgrounds, and this is now visible in the workplace. One way to address this might be to offer diploma courses based in practice, and we are already one of several firms working with the University of Sheffield to develop this flexible route through the ‘Collaborative Practice’ programme. I am behind this, but only if it provides the opportunity for students to develop their own creative thought processes, experimenting with new skills and techniques, as they would at university.

The role of the architect is changing. I am convinced that the future of a good practice is in collaborating with clients to solve their problems, making the most of sites and opportunities, using our lateral thinking and broad design skills to form long-term partnerships sharing risk and reward.

As we move out of recession, there is a confidence about the younger generation that is unstoppable, and quite right, too.  They are hyper-connected, tech-savvy, entrepreneurial and collaborative. If I had to think of four ways to describe how our practice needs to adapt for the future, it would be expressed in these terms, and in a business like ours, where Generation Y makes up over 70 per cent of the workforce, I feel confident we are well placed for the future.

Hazel York is a senior partner at Hawkins\Brown

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