I ran across these statistics online, from 2008, presented as Lawyer vs Architect:
Education time: 4 + 3 vs 4 + 3 (undergrad + grad)
Education debt: $100K vs $100K
Mean Salary, first job: $96K* vs $56K
Salary Range, first job: $52 – $140K* vs $46 – $68K
What an appalling discrepancy in earning power; especially when education and debt are exactly the same. The difference is amazing. Do architects not know their real worth or are they really worth that much less?
Unfortunately the rules of play are set in each respective industry. It’s going to take a long time to close the gap.
Lawyers will have their day in the sun; I truly believe that. I read that law schools have graduated 40,000 people a year over the past few years and that there will be 1.5M lawyers in the US in the next decade. Where will all these people work? There are enough crooked minds in the profession to make work up, but it’s safe to say that average salaries will have to come down as a result.
So logic says the gap will get closed from the lawyer end. The architecture end is a different monster and will require an enormous culture shift. Top architecture firms will have to start paying their employees significantly more than they currently do (think $80k out of grad school and not $56k). Enough top firms will have to do that so that they attract all the top talent. If this happens, mid-tier firms will have to step up, and so on.
Of course, salary isn’t an isolated variable and needs to correspond with higher contract fees (the enormous culture shift bit). That’s right, architect salaries are directly tied to architect fees, so its time to belly up and start asking for more money. (A real problem in the industry is that 80+% of all architecture firms have less than 5 employees, which means low overhead, scrappy mentalities and a willingness to compete on price; low price. That and the fact that I can count all the architects I know who are comfortable talking about money on one hand.)
So Rule #1 is that top architecture firms have to start the cultural shift by paying (significantly) higher salaries and demanding (significantly) higher fees. Rule #2 comes from the other side of the hierarchal tree. Rule #2 is that small and start-up firms have to stop competing on price. It’s a downward spiral that negatively affects the entire industry. Architects are incredibly well educated, provide a vital service (shelter, boiled down to its essence), and they cannot continue to downgrade their societal importance. (What’s more important, a signed contract or a roof over your head? Debatable, I know.)
I started this blog with retainer fees in mind, have clearly gone astray, but want to close the loop, so retainer fees are my Rule #3. Retainer fees will help change the culture of compensation in the industry by making sure architects don’t get stiffed on payment.
Retainer fees (surprisingly enough!) are most commonly used in the legal profession. Despite my liberal lawyer bashing (I do actually know and like some lawyers), there’s a lot to learn from our professional service brethren when it comes to making money or just plain earning a living.
By definition, a retainer fee is a fixed amount of money that a client agrees to pay, in advance, to secure the services of a consultant. The fee is typically not associated with the success of a project or based on achieving particular results.
From an architects perspective, a retainer is honesty money; a way for a client to show they’re serious about engaging your services and even more so, that they have the ability to actually pay for your services.
Retainers are most relevant with first time clients and less relevant for repeat clients.
Think of them as an insurance policy. The retainer should be enough to cover a month or two worth of payments; in other words, enough to cover your work over the time you get to know and develop a relationship with the client. By the time you’ve worked through your retainer fee, you need to have made a decision on the trustworthiness of the client.
So that’s Rule #3: Charge a retainer fee for every project you work on. Rule #3 is directly connected to #’s 1 and 2. Retainer fees won’t work in a bubble; everyone has to participate. If I start asking for a retainer on my projects, and Joe Architect does not, Joe Architect will probably get my job (who wants to pay more money up front when they don’t have to) and the entire industry will be worse off because of it. Both I and Joe Architect have to require them. We have to level the playing field and level it on a higher (and more profitable) ground.
Rule #1: Zaha and Rem, pay up.
Rule #2: Recent big firm refugee, don’t take a legitimate job on at a loss.
Rule #3: All, require retainers on every project you work.
If by some bizarre chance the whole industry starts playing by these rules, a more lucrative living will be had, vacations will be exotic and enjoyable, and school debt will get paid off before retirement. And you won’t have to sue someone to get there.
*Salary numbers reflect those of corporate lawyers.