How To Choose An Architectural Employer (part 2)

This is the continuation of my thoughts on how to choose an architectural firm in which to work at. In my previous post, I talked about deciding on where you want to live and then researching the architectural firms in the area. My exact words were: "if you like what you see, you might enjoy working for that company." I emphasized "might" because the work that a firm does is not a guarantee that you will enjoy working for that firm.

I have heard stories of several nationally (if not internationally) recognizable firms that have created tremendous projects, but that have negative reputations as far as working environments go. I remember one story of a prominent firm in which there was an unwritten rule that if the phone was not answered within two rings, you could be fired. In another popular firm, the principal was (and perhaps still is) prone to yelling and screaming if he doesn't get his way;  and not just at his employees, but at consultants, contractors, and even owners as well!

In this installment, I won't be naming names or creating a list of firms to avoid. Instead, I'm just going to touch on some of the things you, as a recent graduate, can expect. Again, these thoughts are based on my own experience and your own experiences can (and will) differ.

What should can I expect in terms of compensation?

This is going to vary. Within the architectural profession, there is no union that I’m aware of that sets or governs a pay scale for architects and their staff. It varies from firm to firm and from region to region. Company size, location, and success all factor in to how much you might be paid. As do their attitudes toward their employees. Some firms value their employees highly and reward them accordingly. Unfortunately, others do not. The best I can do is point you to the latest AIA Compensation Report.  You'll notice that it's something you have to purchase and it that it isn't cheap.  However, you can get an basic idea of salary levels from the salary survey published in Architect magazine.  If you don't mind being a few years out of date, you can also view a pdf of the 2011 AIA Compensation Report.

It’s been my experience that bonuses also vary wildly from firm to firm.  I've worked for firms that gave out quarterly bonuses, yearly bonuses, very little bonuses, and no bonuses at all. Usually those that didn't give bonuses, did pay overtime (when it occurred and had prior approval). The firm that paid quarterly bonuses, didn't pay overtime. Instead, overtime was factored into the quarterly bonus.

In regard to overtime, there is a myth that architects have a lot of it and that it goes unpaid. Modern labor laws have largely done away with that kind of attitude. I'm sure that in places, salaried employees and firm owners (principals) might have unpaid overtime, though they typically are compensated in other ways (bigger bonuses, stock options, etc.). It has been my experience that interns (i.e. recent graduates) are usually hourly employees and therefore entitled to rights governing such things.

Most of the firms I've worked for have provided some sort of retirement savings plan – usually a simple IRA or 401k.  Sometimes they've even matched a certain percentage of your contributions. The largest firm I worked for initially offered a 401k to its employees, but as it grew, it transitioned away from that program and into an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). With that kind of a plan all the employees owned a piece of the pie so to speak. Of course, the principals and associates had bigger pieces as they were allowed (and expected) to purchase additional stock in the company.

What about benefits?  What should I expect?

Again, this will vary by firm, but it has been my experience that the larger the firm, the more benefits they will offer.

Usually, most firms will give you six to seven of the ten Federally recognized holidays. I've only experienced one firm that observed Martin Luther King's birthday (though they opted out of Presidents Day).  None that I have worked for have acknowledged the existence of Columbus Day or Veterans Day.

Most of the firms I've worked for have offered between 5-10 sick days/year.  Those that have offered the most called it "Personal Time" and allowed you to use it as sick time, time off for doctor appointments, time to care for a sick child, or even an impulsive ski day. Now that I think of it, only one of the firms I worked at restricted sick time to an actual illness - meaning that you were not allowed to use it for a doctor's appointment or child care (much less an impulsive ski day!).

Most of the firms I've worked at have had a set maximum of sick days/personal time you could accrue in a given year as well as a "use it or lose" policy that resets your accrued time to zero at the start of the following year without any sort of payout. Personally, I find the "use it or lose it" policy to be extremely non-progressive.  Why penalize employees who take very little sick time and reward those who do? It seems backwards to me. It also encourages employees to be "sick" - especially as the year comes to an end and their earned time is about to reset to zero.

My first firm offered me 5 days my first year, 10 days my second year, and 15 days starting in my fifth year. When I left that company, my next employers matched the 15 days per year that I had been getting. A few times since, I've worked for firms that have offered less (or even no vacation time). I no longer work for those firms and lack of paid vacation is one of the reasons why. Architecture is not a stress-free profession. I personally believe that no employee should have less than 2 weeks (10 days) of paid vacation. I also believe that vacation (like compensation) should awarded in relation to experience, rather than by time served with the firm (that's what promotions are for).

There is a further thought that vacation should not be accrued over time, but should instead be awarded on a yearly basis. Every firm I've worked at that has provided vacation benefits, has stipulated that vacation time accrues as a factor of time spent working (i.e. every month you work, you earn a certain amount of vacation time). With my first firm, you could save it year by year and it would never expire. By my sixth year, I had saved up nearly a month and a half - which I used for a trip to Europe. One of the founding principals rarely took vacations and had literally hundreds of hours saved. Partly because of my trip - even though the firm leadership was aware of it and had approved it months beforehand - the firm's vacation policy was altered to allow a maximum of 4 weeks to be saved at any given time.  If you went over that threshold, the excess time would be converted to dollars and paid back to you as part of your quarterly bonus. The other firms I've worked for had the same "use it or lose it" policy that I discussed in relation to sick time. Basically, you had to use any/all time off within the given year or you would forfeit it entirely. The time would reset every year between January and March, depending on the firm). Obviously this made it extremely difficult for employees to save up for any extended vacation other than winter holidays.

I don't currently have any employees, so I'm not sure how the new health insurance legislation factors in. At the two most recent firms I worked at, no health coverage was offered. Zero. In the past, I've only seen the most basic of health coverage.  Two of the five firms I've worked for provided some dental coverage.  None provided any vision – which always struck me as odd considering that architecture is a visual profession and we aren't helping our eyes by spending hours in front of a computer screen. We are, in fact, hurting them. The rationale I've been given in the past was that vision insurance is overly expensive and the coverage isn't very good. I've been told that some firms will increase your salary to cover the cost of an annual exam and glasses/contacts in lieu of insurance, but I haven't encountered any of those firms myself.

Usually larger firms will have more to offer. Things like cell phones, public transportation passes, parking fees, gym memberships, continuing education fees, licensing fees, professional membership fees, and/or stock options are not uncommon at large firms. The coolest perk I ever encountered was at my first firm, which offered a travel scholarship that consisted of $2,500 and an extra week of paid vacation to go somewhere in the world to study some aspect of architecture that could benefit the firm as a whole. In addition to the research benefit, it was a tax write-off for the firm and something for employees to shoot for. It was a competition and in that regard, it wasn't really an employee benefit as only one person each year received it. Still, it was better than not having it at all.

Those are the basic benefits I have encountered. Sadly, they aren't the most inspiring in the world. If you are expecting benefits like those offered by FullContact500pxgoogle, or other 21st century companies, you will probably want to apply to them instead of an architecture firm. I've never seen or heard of an architecture firm offering anything remotely close to what those companies offer. I would be delighted to be proven wrong about that though. Please feel free to let me know of such companies in the comments. If you have encountered other benefits that I've overlooked (or wasn't aware of), you can alert me to them as well!