A number of people in the industry have been asking me to share my views on some of the new job titles currently circulating among architecture firms. So, here’s my take…

There are a significant number of up and coming architecture professionals out there today who are feeling undervalued and unsatisfied at work. While such feelings of discontent may be connected to several factors, such as work-life balance and compensation, the truth is the title that these individuals hold within the profession can be a big, yet overlooked part of the problem.

The issue is not so much about semantics, but more about a fundamental need for a job title that accurately describes the work being performed as well as the experience and knowledge of the person holding it. Few things are more frustrating and discouraging to talented, hardworking professionals than having a title next to their name that is ambiguous, belittling, or even misleading.

Not only does this send a confusing signals as to where these employees are holding in the equity ladder, but it also complicates work with clients and business partners. Even casual networking with peers can devolve into an awkward experience as these professionals struggle to describe what it is exactly that they do.

A Tale of Leadership Tiers

Once upon a time, architecture firms had three tiers of job titles that reflected three distinct tiers of leadership:

  •      Tier 3: Associate. Those just starting on the leadership trail, the up and comers being groomed for future senior leadership positions and potential equity
  •      Tier 2: Associate Director / Senior Associate. The senior leaders with broad management responsibilities for a variety of projects or project teams, including client contact, scheduling, and budgeting.
  •      Tier 1: Director. The owners, major equity holders, and firm principals. These days, a number of firms have up to five tiers of leadership with a boutique of creative job titles. Others have chosen to simply recycle the titles they already use.

Consider the title Practice Director. Traditionally, Practice Directors were the people who ran the practice. Seems pretty straight forward, right? But some firms have now decided to use this title as a new organisational tier. When there are twenty Practice Directors in the one studio, it sends confusing messages as to who does what as well as how much each individual should be paid for his or her work. So, for that matter, does taking an old title like Associate or Director and just slapping the tag of “Senior” in front of it.

Before I go any further, let me point out that many other established industries have a clear hierarchy of roles and positions. You can easily distinguish, for example, the difference between an enrolled nurse and a registered nurse, an engineer and a certified Professional Engineer, and someone with an accountant’s degree versus another who is a CPA. But as time goes by it seems the architecture industry is beginning to lose some of its structure.

Part of the problem is that some firms are still struggling to define the paths for career advancement and leadership development that their most promising employees can follow. In this case, it’s much easier to just create slightly new positions with important sounding, yet practically meaningless titles in order to make their employees feel like their careers are advancing. It’s a quick, band-aid solution that does little to change the status quo.

It should also be mentioned that there are a few studios that choose to define their organisational structure in their own unique, out-of-the box way by design. They’re different; they know it; and it doesn’t bother either them, their staff, or their clients.

But aside from these two examples, there’s really a deeper current within the architecture industry that I think is the driving force behind the current job title craze. I’ve mentionedbefore that architecture as we know it has been fundamentally changing over the past decade in response to seismic shifts in technology and client demand. As a result, architecture firms of all shapes and sizes are now facing new standards in the project research, design, and build process that are forcing them to rethink their business model. This includes re-evaluating the scope and responsibilities of current positions, creating new positions that didn’t exist before, and getting rid of outdated or redundant ones.

Some firms have been slow to adapt to these changes in no small part because the process is likely to be both onerous and costly. Instead, these firms are merely introducing a wave of new positions with recycled or ambiguous titles. So, while the organisational structure may indeed be changing in some way, the change is superficial. The job titles and the responsibilities of their staff are not really keeping up with the realities of the industry.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Given that the architecture industry is rapidly evolving, the need for standardised titles is greater than ever. In Australia, you can’t call yourself an Architect until you are registered with the Board of Architects, which means you have taken the Architectural Practice Exam, conducted the interview, completed your log book and officially passed. In a similar vein, I believe the architecture industry would benefit if there was a certain standardised level of experience professionals need to attain before they can rightfully be called an Associate, Senior Associate, or Director.

In other countries, such as the US, efforts are being made to standardise the titles that architecture studios are using. The question is why can’t we do the same thing here in Australia or in any other country where such efforts are lacking?

What do you think? Should there be a standard set of rules that define the experience and responsibilities a professional needs before he or she can hold a particular title, or should we leave this up to the individual architecture firms themselves?