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The Diary of an Anonymous Academic #11

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The eleventh in a series about the unreported trials and tribulations from the front line of architectural education. This week: Employability

‘What hobbies shall I put on my CV when I start applying for jobs?’  - final year student

‘Preferably none’ - lecturer

Thankfully this question is not asked very often. But it has been. Students become bashful when I inform them employers don’t really care too much about their ‘shopping’ habits or which ‘gigs’ they go to.

One question that does come up often is ‘when shall I start sending out my CV?’ My response is not what it should be. I could say ‘sooner the better’ - the earlier they start, the better prepared they will be when they finish university. But I prefer to deter those eager students looking to apply pre-Christmas. I’d rather they concentrate on their studies first. The last thing I want them to have is another distraction. Not while there is six months of studying left anyway.

The best time I tell them is ‘about now’ (March/April). It’s soon enough for practices to start thinking about their workload in three months time, students have more refined images to include in their CV and they also have a better idea where they want to be after they graduate.

So to coincide with this period of job-hunting, I arrange a series of employability seminars. From interview techniques to networking, PEDR’s to transferable skills, freelancing to exploitation; I base a lot of the content on past experience – you just can’t beat a good anecdote to get the message across.

I also try to keep these sessions informal and relaxed. Students are tense enough as it is with all their assignments so I get a colleague to talk to them about jobs, somebody they don’t know so they are not worried about being lectured on something existential or other. Every school has them - a year out coordinator.

They appear to respond well to him. Maybe it’s because they know he won’t be marking any of their work - although he dresses more like an academic than I do. And they also always seem to be sole-practitioners. I’m not so sure whether they are the most appropriate to talk about employing graduates.

Students don’t seem to expect academics to know about finding jobs - all we know about is existential theories

Students don’t seem to expect academics to know about finding jobs as if like all we know about is (more) existential theories and nothing based on practical everyday life. Perhaps this is the case for some, but I am fortunate enough to have a lot of experience and knowledge in this area – I graduated during a recession.

I was not one of those graduates who came out of education and straight into a job during the economic boom. I was a one of the graduates who sent out 100+ CV’s without a single response. I was also one of the ‘lost generation’ that the media kept on flaunting about as a symbol of how grim it was.

At the time, whilst on the interview rounds, I always remember thinking how shortsighted some employers were. They always seemed to be at pains to decide whether to take me on or not because I was able to draw by hand. One even told me I should go be an artist. Like I go to architecture interviews for kicks.

Sure, CAD skills are vital. But to assume somebody is unable to learn a new software programme after having studied for several years is bordering on offensive, let alone ignorant.

It is understandable for bosses to want new employees to start on projects right away, but everyone came through the same process, so a little consideration wouldn’t go amiss. Working on such short-term views can be damaging - interesting to know that particular office doesn’t exist anymore.

On a similar topic, I recently met a director of a well-respected architecture practice in the region and got on to the conversation about graduate skills. He says he regrets employing certain individuals during more affluent times based on how well they can ‘bang out’ drawings. Turns out these employees have become fodder - all they seem to be able to do is follow orders rather than help the company grow – especially during difficult times.

The general consensus is that employers are looking for graduates who can communicate their ideas

The general consensus now however, is that many employers are looking for graduates who can communicate their ideas. They are beginning to realise the potential of where graduates can contribute to more than just menial drawing tasks. Communication is a broad term and the variety in modes of representation is an area they have an expertise in. So while they are put to good use, they can then learn the aspects of the profession that is not always at the forefront in academia.

All this information is useful material to disseminate and the students appreciate it. I know I would have when I was about to finish my studies. Nobody told me what to do if I couldn’t get a job I had studied so long for. Nobody told me that it’s not what you know but who you know. Nobody told me how to be entrepreneurial. And surprisingly, nobody told me of all the possibilities that become available if you don’t work in an office.

That’s because my tutors did not know either. However I am grateful for my misfortune – it all counts as vital knowledge to pass down to my students. For most of them, their dreams of becoming an architect will not happen – I have no problem telling them this. I am not crushing their expectations, I am getting them to realign their ambitions and inform them there is nothing wrong if you realise you cannot or do not want to be an architect anymore.

The core of these employability sessions tries to make students realise what they have learned and how much of it is transferable to any disciplines and not just architecture. This will be in the hope that they will have confidence to move on if their Kevin McCloud dream does not come to fruition.

I am not sure if people would consider it strange or as a disservice to the profession but above all, I consider the wellbeing of my students as paramount.

There is no point leading them down a path they don’t feel comfortable in. This doesn’t benefit anyone in the long term. Loads of graduates doing all sorts of weird and wonderful things, showing everyone how useful a degree in architecture for their everyday life is, does benefit everyone.

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