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A minimum wage is not the answer to students' problems

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Architects deserve to earn a minimum wage - but not at the cost of being unable to progress their chosen course, argues David Lumb

More than a year ago I instigated a move to encourage local practices to provide ‘access’ to their offices for those Part I and Part II students who were facing the prospect of becoming stranded at the end of their academic years due to the lack of available paid positions. 

Although this initiative, in the context of nearly half the students in the AJ survey stating they were willing to work for nothing to progress their careers, started a great deal more debate than action, at least by July last year the RIBA had introduced their ‘Host Practice’ scheme nationwide. Our practice was one of the first to offer a place. 

After almost a year, the scheme has only nineteen practices offering desk places, (all accept two of which are small practices), and there are no universities offering research vacancies. Hardly a success, in the context of this year’s even greater number of students faced with the stark choice of having to postpone or at worst to abandon progress on their chosen career path. 

Of course the RIBA should take ‘strong action’ to tackle student problems (see AJ 24.07.10) but if this involves even further a tightening of the ‘one size fits all’ prescription for obtaining practical experience then this is not the solution to their problems. What is desperately needed is a proactive contribution from us all to create and manage a more open and inclusive ‘market place’ of opportunities using the capacity in the vast majority of practices to provide students with both a desk and support. 

To continue to ban the acquisition of ‘practical’ experience that is not obtained in any other way than by fully paid employment is not giving any credit to the students’ own tremendous capacity of resource and flexibility in overcoming barriers.  We certainly should, at least, try match them in seeking different ways to deal with what we can only hope are temporary conditions.

We all support the improvement of ‘pay and employment conditions’ but if this results in students simply not being able to progress then we need to change the prescription, without delay. The argument that internships are simply a vehicle for unscrupulous employers to abuse students needs to be countered by establishing a rigorous framework of well defined responsibilities to be imposed on both parties and I would suggest that employment terms for architectural internships are established and monitored, by the RIBA, so that practices and universities can offer positions, without fear of total condemnation, on exactly the same basis that apprentices are employed in the rest of the construction industry.

Although this means that they will not be paid the minimum wage it should be acknowledged that the internship is part of an ongoing commitment to training. An individual who has already made a major commitment by embarking on a seven year academic course also deserves to earn a minimum wage but not at the cost of not being able to progress their chosen course.  The flexibility for the student to obtain fully paid work elsewhere and, at the same time, progress their internship should be a fundamental part of the defined responsibilities.

David Lumb is director of architecture519

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