Talent Drain: Innovation Bridging Practice and Education

June 12, 2006 · by Neil Frankel

Straddled between the world of architectural practice and architectural education, I can't help wonder why there isn't better alignment between the two.

Straddled between the world of architectural practice and architectural education, I can't help wonder why there isn't better alignment between the two. Both are key players in the subject of innovation; schools teach critical thinking strategies to maximize a student's ability to innovate and firms rely on innovation to promote their differentiation among the competition. In concept, you'd think it a perfect partnership. But, it's not. Just pick up a copy of last Sunday's want ads and you'll see where the problem lies. Most, if not all, entry-level job postings are seeking out CAD operators. It's every student's nightmare - the bottom of the architectural food chain - becoming a CAD monkey. Where or when, then, does innovation come in?

We pass this off as a coming-of-age-story. We all lived through it. Before CAD it was picking up red lines or the infamous toilet partition detail. You serve your time and hopefully someday, in a month, perhaps a year, you'll catch a break and join the design team. After all, very few graduates are practice ready. This gives them time to absorb the culture, see how things are done.

Here's the wake-up call. These highly motivated recent graduates are curious, skilled and have amazing appetites to innovate. They could be an employer's dream, and that's the good news. The bad news is that these students have plenty of other opportunities, and they know it, opportunities in education, the corporate world, real estate, government, and even the film industry. The question is, if CAD operator is the best the profession has to offer, how can we expect to avoid an inevitable talent drain?

According to a 1997 McKinsey & Co. report, the most important corporate resource for the next 20 years is talent. It's also the resource in shortest supply. Attraction and retention issues are paramount client concerns included in nearly every design brief. How can we afford to look the other way at our own profession simply because we don't know how to effectively integrate recent graduates into practice?

We need to consider what's at risk if we don't build greater opportunity for talent. Just look at the current condition and see why. As a profession, are we perceived as a good investment for research funding? Are we making significant headway in advancing the body of knowledge of architecture? Have we moved beyond a profession that is concerned with the formal, traditional issues of practice? Have we discovered new ways to innovate within our practices? Be objective and see how your firm scores.

Big hurdles, but not entirely insurmountable, if we collectively work towards change. What's required as a first step is the establishment of a platform for dialogue about retaining our best and brightest to begin building the profession of the future. This requires a multilateral discourse bringing together practitioners, academics, students, and clients. Here's an opportunity to bridge the combined communities for the mutual goal of developing great opportunities for our richest resource - talent.

Neil Frankel is the Fitz-Hugh Scott Distinguished Design Critic of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning, partner in the independent studio Frankel + Coleman, and a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council. In 2005, Mr. Frankel was the sole recipient of the American Institute of Architects Students (AIAS) Education Honor Award.

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