The Earnings Curve: Perspectives on Career Compensation

March 28, 2012 · by Scott Simpson

A strategic view and long-term thinking can yield big rewards. A job is not a career; it’s just one step in a journey that culminates in a lifelong body of work.

A successful career can be said to have three basic attributes: yearning (aspiration), learning (education) and earning (compensation). If you take care of the first two, then the third will take care of itself.

For young professionals just starting out, there is an understandable focus on the size of that first paycheck. After all, the rent is due and those pesky student loans need to be paid. But salary is only a number, just one measure of professional worth and accomplishment. Money alone does not tell the whole story. What’s far more important is overall career development, which typically comprises many jobs (even within the same firm) and can be characterized by the four basic phases of Learner, Doer, Leader, and Teacher.

Phase 1: Learner

Learners are the newly minted graduates who are typically full of enthusiasm and ambition but woefully short on actual skill. Very few design schools prepare their graduates to be effective professionals right out of the gate. That is understandable; there’s just too much to learn. Rather, school is the place to stoke the fires of imagination and aspiration. Most practical skills in the profession are learned only after the diploma is granted.

It takes a few years to understand the basics, the biggest lesson being that the real world is nothing like the academy — nothing at all. Real projects are done by teams, not individuals. Real projects must contend with the constraints of budgets, schedules, building codes, approvals processes, and the dynamics of how clients actually make decisions. Real projects must be properly flashed in order to keep the rain out.

In addition to learning how to deal with all this fussy stuff, young professionals must adapt to the culture of the particular office in which they find themselves. This includes getting up to speed on the official protocols and procedures (computer systems and timesheets) that are so important to keeping the organization running, as well as the unwritten rules of how the tribal culture actually works. They are rarely the same thing.

The Learner phase is exceedingly important because that’s where a person’s basic professional attitudes are formed and where self-image begins to bump up against the realities of practice. By dint of luck or circumstance, some Learners may find themselves assigned to a task or a project that is a perfect fit, and they will blossom. Others will be relegated to routine work that is necessary but not particularly glamorous. If they are smart, Learners will not be put off by this. They will realize how little they actually know, and they will want to absorb everything they can. They will seek out mentors in different aspects of professional practice. They will pay attention to the subtleties of group dynamics, striving to become good team members. They will read books and articles, attend professional conferences and seminars, and pursue professional licensure. Eventually, they will become proficient in handling the mundane tasks typically assigned to the newbies, and they will press their supervisors to move up, looking for more opportunity and responsibility (and pay). If the path to growth is blocked, then it’s time to seek opportunity elsewhere.

The Learner stage generally lasts about three years. Entry level compensation starts at roughly $36,966 and can grow to $46,701 during that time — an increase of 26 percent, or nearly 9 percent per year. The starting base is small, but the growth potential is large in percentage terms.

Phase 2: Doer

Those who have been good Learners will move on, either inside or outside the firm, to become Doers — the people who actually get stuff done. Doers have finally gotten the hang of things and have become proficient in some aspect of professional practice. They are the cylinders in the engine, providing the power and the push. Doers are facile at completing defined tasks, but they cannot be left to their own devices just yet. They still require a good measure of management because there is still so much to learn.

At some point, Doers will face the question of whether or not to specialize. This is when self-interest, skill set, and opportunity begin to align. It can be a tough choice. Those who have always wanted to be designers may have to face the fact that they are much better suited to the technical or management aspects of the profession. It’s a key decision point (like choosing a college or a spouse), as it sets the course for all subsequent professional development.

The Doer stage is quite variable: It can be as short as three years or as long as 10, and compensation typically ranges from $60,279 to $71,87 (growth of about 20 percent). Someone who has been a good Learner and a diligent Doer is ready for the next jump, to Leader. This is a big step, and not everyone makes it.

Phase 3: Leader

Leadership is easily recognized but often hard to define. Leaders are those who have a knack for organizing and motivating others. They can see the big picture and are able to operate at both the strategic and tactical levels simultaneously. They understand that it takes teamwork to accomplish complex tasks and are skillful at dealing with the psycho-dynamics of group behavior. They know when to push and when to pull. They are experts in their particular skill set (it’s key to earning respect), but they are also smart enough to know what they don’t know and are not afraid to ask for help when it is needed.

Leaders communicate both up and down the food chain. They keep senior management informed (it’s how they gain a measure of operational freedom) and they also make sure that subordinates know what is expected. They are always focused on results, and this means balancing the often conflicting goals of design, schedule, and budget. Leaders are good listeners and never stop learning. They pay attention to what clients, consultants, and contractors have to say. In this way they gain professional stature both inside and outside the firm.

The Leader stage can last for five to 15 years, with a compensation range of $82,756 to $126,682, an increase of 53 percent. This is quite a surge because the leverage of leadership has real economic benefits for the firm, and it is during this phase that those with marketing and business development skills usually begin to shine.

Phase 4: Teacher

Some professionals are content to remain in the Doer stage as subject matter experts or in the Leader stage as process experts, but a small minority (about 10 percent) break through to enter the fourth and final stage, which is Teacher. This generally comes with an ownership position in the firm.

Teachers have healthy self-esteem, but they realize that they will not be around forever. They are those rare individuals who understand that the smartest way to advance both their own careers and the fortunes of the firm is to prepare the next generation to take over. They are constantly looking over the horizon for new ideas in design, technology, and process improvement. Teachers have had their successes, to be sure, but they have also survived much failure and have learned from it. They look for bright, curious, and ambitious Learners, Doers, and Leaders who are willing to take advice, but they are also careful not to get in the way. Each generation will experience a unique set of challenges and opportunities and will need to learn its own lessons. Hence, Teachers are there for guidance rather than direction.

Teachers are not possessive or selfish; they take satisfaction from the success of others. There are no term limits for this phase; it’s a lifelong position. By being generous, Teachers reap significant rewards. Having been good Learners, Doers, and Leaders for many years, they are in a position to benefit not only from their own hard work but the success of the firm as well. Compensation for this group ranges from $114,611 to $172,400, and can easily go much higher.

Cumulative Compensation

While design professionals often complain of sub-optimal compensation, Figure 1 tells an interesting story. Entry level architecture salaries might seem modest when compared to professions such as law or finance, but they can grow quickly. Taken as a whole, aggregate compensation over the course of a career can easily exceed $4.5 million, an average of $104,859 per year not including bonuses, incentives, and other perks, which can be substantial in good years.

While a relatively small proportion of professionals achieve some measure of ownership status, even those who top out as Leaders do quite well, with overall career earnings of nearly $4 million, while Doers earn nearly $2.8 million. The real earning power comes in the later stages of a career, so it pays to be patient.

The encouraging news is that for entry level professionals who are willing to take a strategic view of their career development, there’s no need to take a vow of poverty. Design is a value-added profession. Done well, it produces significant economic benefits not only for clients but also for practitioners. In fact, they go hand in hand. The lesson is clear: Long-term thinking can yield big rewards.

Related

DesignIntelligence Compensation and Benefits Survey, 2012



Scott Simpson is a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council and a Richard Upjohn Fellow of the American Institute of Architects as well as an overseer of the Boston Children’s Museum. He is co-author of The Next Architect: A New Twist on the Future of Design and a frequent speaker and writer on issues of innovation in design.

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