I get asked a LOT about how much money an architect makes and without understanding a few parameters, that’s like trying to buy a car by the pound. I spend a fair amount of my time discussing the architectural marketplace, where we can find value, what’s the going salary rate based on skill set and experience, and how badly we need this spot or that spot filled. If you are curious (like pretty much everyone else out there) today is the show for you … Welcome to EP 124: Show Me the Money!
[Note: If you are reading this via email, click here to access the on-site audio player]
Current Market jump to 1:19
As a starting point, we need to discuss the current market out there … which seems extremely cutthroat if I am being frank. We interview people all the time – and I can confidently say that the magic unicorn of architectural experience is 5-7 years. While it seems that it has been that way my entire life, it just seems like there are barely candidates out there in this bandwidth of experience. Five to seven years of experience is typically when people really start providing substantial value. They have enough knowledge and experience that they can run projects with minimal oversight and they can start guiding people with less experience. When it comes to staffing, these are the folks that are most in demand.
Because of our size, we work with a handful of recruiters – which is really a mixed bag of good and bad. According to literally every recruiter I ever speak with, they always have their hands on the most amazing future BOKA Powell employee that ever existed, but that is only true about 20% of the time. In case you didn’t know, recruiters get paid a percentage (which is typically negotiated ahead of time) of the person’s salary that they are placing, and that fee typically falls between 15-25% of the offered salary … which makes that fee pretty significant. It is in their (the recruiter’s) financial best interest to get you (the candidate) the highest salary possible for the simple reason that more money for you means more money for them. Do they artificially drive up salaries in the market – for sure, but I can certainly recognize that the going rate in the market is set based on what people are willing to pay.
So how do we determine how much we want to pay?
Where do We Get Our Data? jump to 11:00
The AIA Compensation Report is a bi-annual report that we rely on as a starting point for almost all of our salary conversations. The challenging thing where this survey is concerned is that it isn’t published every year and the current version is from 2021 which means the information collected was from the end of 2020 … and the current climate has changed drastically since then. I don’t know when the new version comes out – it’ll be this year, they stopped taking in new survey information in March
You can also go to the AIA National website and there you will find a salary calculator. All you need to do is pick a position and a region in the country and you can find out the range of salaries from the 25% quartile to the 75th quartile, as well as base pay and additional cash compensation. Part of what makes this calculator useful is that they consider your entire compensation, which is the combined value of your base pay, plus additional cash compensation, plus the value of your benefits. This suggests that you should have some sort of understanding of your benefits when considering your comp package and an offer that comes during the interview process.
You also have sites like Salary.com which, at least until the new AIA compensation survey comes out, might reflect a more accurate and current position in the market. I did a comparison and for an Architect I (they don’t seem to make the distinction between licensed and unlicensed which the AIA report does) the median for someone in my part of the country is $60,886, which is about $6,000 higher than the AIA survey that is 2 years and 1 pandemic out of date.
Something also worth considering is that since the title “architect” has been co-opted into the tech industry, some of these generic job placement sites will superficially show a higher salary for an “architect” than what is actually in place. Indeed.com is one of those sites because the top 5 companies for “Architects” in Dallas do not include any architectural firms. I will also say that US News had Alabama with the two highest-paying cities for an architect but ZipRecruiter had Alabama ranked as the #47 worst state when it comes to salaries for architects. Clearly, there is a disconnect in place here.
Another source of information is basically talking with other firm owners. I don’t get to do this as much as you might think to be honest, at least, not so much in the last 4 years. Mostly because of the firm size, but when I was at smaller 10-15 person shops this sort of thing happened all the time.
Feedback from Candidates – this one moves the needle a lot more than I would have guessed. This isn’t just what they ask for, it’s what we get them for and the amount for which we lose them. It isn’t too often that we are outside of the asking range, but occasionally we will get someone who is asking for $20k more than everyone else at their same experience level.
This is a nice transition into the next bit of our conversation …
Golden Handcuffs jump to 25:21
A cautionary tale and one of the most important pieces of advice I have ever doled out on the Life of an Architect website – “Don’t ever take a job just for the money”
I know that might sound ignorant, but I have a 100-1 ratio of stories that support that this is more often the case than not. Most of the time there is a reason why a company might be grossly over-paying for a position compared to the marketplace and rarely is it a good reason. I wrote an entire piece dedicated to my own experience with this titled (shockingly) “Golden Handcuffs” so I have some personal experience with this.
When the employment market strongly favors the employee, there are frequent opportunities to leave one job for another and get a disproportionately large bump in pay. I’m all in favor of getting paid well but sometimes there is some jeopardy for being paid TOO well. Any sort of change in the job market can put you front at the front and center as a cost-savings casualty, and not because you aren’t a good employee, but because of the discrepancy between perceived value to cost.
The other consideration during these periods is knowing that if you take a job simply because there is a bump in pay, is to still consider that actual job and not just the money. People tend to change their lifestyle to reflect their compensation and in a far shorter period than you imagine, you don’t feel how awesome the pay is anymore and all that is left is a job that you may not actually enjoy (this was what happened to me in my “Golden Handcuffs” experience)
Other Forms of Compensation jump to 33:48
I put this section at the end because it isn’t technically about “showing someone the money” but if my 30+ years have taught me anything, these other forms make a difference. We are attempting for this conversation to build a crescendo that advocates that there is a balance between the satisfaction of being compensated fairly AND having a job place experience worth having. Other than a sweet paycheck, there are additional reasons why one job would be better than another – opportunities, responsibilities, alignment of values, ability to grow, the path to ownership, scale, size and type of projects – whatever matters to you.
Over the course of my career, the value I assigned to the things listed above has had an ebb and flow to it and due consideration should be made to think not only about what matters now but what will matter in a few years. In the early portion of my career, I really wanted to learn how to detail buildings but it seemed that no matter where I went, I got a job that put me in a position to detail buildings and very quickly I was moved out of that role and put in front of clients and contractors to talk about the work. I fought this for years and quit a lot of jobs because I felt like I wasn’t learning how to be a “proper” architect. It wasn’t until 15 years into my career that I started to realize what I was good at and start to lean in and embrace that role … and I have no doubt that my career would look different had I figured this out ten years earlier than I did. It is for this reason that I assign as much weight to the other forms of compensation as I do … get to where you are supposed to be, you’ll have greater success, and the rest of the compensation will follow.
This AND That jump to 46:38
We are back with another “This AND That” question for today’s episode. In case you missed the explanation of the premise, this and that requires you to accept both things presented in the premise. Typically one item is awesome and the other is not as awesome … but are you willing to accept them both?
You can fly anywhere in the world for free and you sit in the middle seat on the last row. It could have been worse, I thought about putting a baby next to you on the aisle and someone with a weak bladder on the other side by the window.
I was a little surprised to hear that both Andrew and I were out on this one. I like to travel – as in visiting other places – but the act of traveling has always been a drag. If I know that going into every travel experience I am going to be miserable, I know it is going to start off my trip badly and it will spill into the actual enjoyment I would have once I’ve arrived.
EP 124: Show Me the Money
I have had more conversations on compensation than I ever thought I would but I suppose when you have a site like mine, it’ll always be a topic that needs revisiting. Everyone has their own motivations that help them make decisions and the opinions I have expressed here, along with Andrew, is that what I think the goal should be, and what I’ve always wanted for myself, was a living wage and to find some sort of happiness in how I was living my life. If my only goal was to make as much money as possible, I would have gone a different route. In fact, most architects I know clearly have the mental horsepower to go any route they want, but they didn’t … they choose to become an architect. I can only assume that those people tried to weigh their options and find a balance between doing something they loved and making enough money to pay their bills, rather than trying to find a job that would simply pay them the maximum amount possible.