Why understanding the needs of Generation Y employees is crucial to the future of the industry.

Take a moment and search the internet for either the phrase “Generation Y Architect” or “Millennial Architect” (interchangeable terms, though for various reasons I prefer the term Generation Y. Most of the sites you’ll find are for non-architects: there are websites that reference IT professionals, software developers, politicians, masterminds of bad things, etc. Searching for the first term might bring you to my own blog, which is flattering but also elucidating because generational issues are not a major focus of the site. One of the top results of the later term is a blog started on May 22, 2008 that has one post, which I’ll share in its entirety: “More to come.” Search a little harder and you’ll find discussions about Generation Y’s relationship to our industry. But mostly it’s from outsiders looking in, trying to untangle the enigma of this giant mass of youth and energy.

What can be found about Generation Y as it pertains to our profession tends to be unflattering. As a whole we seem to come across as technologically obsessed, attention and approval craving, impatient multi-taskers who spent our childhoods being spoiled by our helicopter parents. And while there may be some truth to those stereotypes, those traits are usually spoken and written about with too much derision.

The January 2013 issue of Architect magazine, entitled “What’s Next: The Millennials,” devoted a large portion of the issue to this very subject. But again the articles read like case studies performed by neutral observers, not a manifesto from within. The images of the Millennials showcased were of painfully stylized individuals: hip architect glasses, blazers, brooding smileless faces. These choices worked to marginalize and undermine the point of the article by putting distance between the topic and the readership. The young architects and interns (I don’t care if they were self-defining as designers; I’ve been in the trenches, I know what we all do in our first years of work) profiled were a caricature of our generation. I don’t look like a trendy urbanite. I’m married and live in a house with a mortgage in St. Paul, Minnesota. I shuttle my daughters, aged two and four, in our unsexy hatchback to and from daycare five days a week. I’m a digital native. But I’m also a husband, a dad, and an architect.

I followed the rules for the first eight or nine years of my career. I got licensed at 28, a few months after my eldest daughter was born. Being at the start of Generation Y, my classmates and I had an easier time getting jobs right out of school in the first half of the 2000s than those that have come later in our cohort. So my early career was quite different from people graduating now — while the architecture jobs available weren’t glamorous, they actually existed. The Generation Y graduates a few years younger than this first wave face a much different landscape.

Recently I had coffee with two architecture students from the University of Minnesota that I’m mentoring. I asked them a question: “Do you have any classmates who say, ‘I can’t wait to graduate and start designing buildings!’?” My mentees’ answers were beautiful in their sadness. One said, “We’re not allowed to be that optimistic.” The other replied, “There are people who say I want to make things.”

I don’t know if either of these students (one graduates in a few months and the other in the spring of 2014) will join our industry. They spoke more passionately about building furniture or heading to Hollywood to work in set design than about architecture. Along with many other recent or soon to be graduating students, they might already be lost to us. Their pessimism, acquired while falling in love with architecture during the worst time in living memory to be an architect, may keep them from fighting to stay in the profession.

It would be comforting if these students and all their classmates find jobs and get the chance to practice architecture. But if they don’t, that’s not so horrible. They will find other fulfilling careers. And worst-case scenario for the industry as a whole is that those unfortunate enough to graduate between, say, 2008 and 2013 never go into architecture. Instead they use the skills they acquired in architecture school elsewhere. Sad for our industry and disappointing for those kids who thought they’d one day be an Architect, but a few years of lost interns isn’t going to wreck our industry. And it might actually help, as there is decreased pressure to add more jobs in an industry that hasn’t been growing that much lately. In a way there’s actually a nice alignment there. Our education provides students with such a great foundation that if there aren’t opportunities here, they are prepared to shine elsewhere.

Those of us who are Generation Y and have entered the industry workforce face other issues. Issues that arise from working within a firm, from following the traditional path. Students and interns with little job prospects are consoled with comments about how a BArch or MArch prepares you to do all sorts of other wonderful things. And that is true. But there’s the converse of this that firms need to deal with. Our degrees prepare us to do all sorts of things. So when we do get architecture jobs, menial tasks and the mentality of “well, when I was your age I had to get the boss coffee, so don’t bitch about it” just don’t cut it. Not because we’re too good for that. But because there is so much other opportunity out there for those with determination and drive.

Before the internet age, starting a firm, getting yourself known as a thought leader, and meeting and sharing experiences with contemporaries had barriers that were unrelated to the core desires of those seeking those goals. The internet and the vast array of social media outlets change this. Want to write? Start a blog. Want to be heard? Add value to discussions on Twitter, LinkedIn, and AIA Knowledge Communities. Want a traditional firm? Build a website, add your work, and make sure everyone of your friends’ friends’ friends on Facebook knows you’ve put the proverbial shingle up and will work on any scale project. And because you work from home on the laptop that’s technically only for your day job, your overhead is so low that you can charge rates that another 25 year old can afford. Rates that a traditional firm with traditional amounts of overhead can’t afford to charge.

What does that all mean? The simple explanation is a growing impatience within Generation Y. But it’s more complex than that. Why be someone else’s subordinate for ten years waiting for a firm leader to give you a chance when you can just put in a little more effort and with the right combination of persistence and luck get that dream commission? Which may just be a garage apartment or a friend’s bar. But it’s 100% yours. And for the ambitious Generation Y graduate, that offers much more potential than waiting for the layers of permissions and bureaucracy that a large company places on him.

Once you get a taste for entrepreneurship, assuming you are so inclined, being withheld from those opportunities is unbearable. To watch coworkers mangle and squander technological advantages (whether BIM, Facebook, Twitter, online communications, scrapping inefficiencies instead of embracing things like digital laser tape measures and doing as-builts directly into iPad apps), is insufferable.

Two dangers arise from this shift in perception. One is apathy towards the day job. If a position at an architecture firm comes across as more of a career obstacle than a creative asset, the quality and quantity of work will decline. If young workers are getting disgruntled and bored, they may give up on making a difference. The other danger is split allegiances. Instead of focusing on the firm’s primary work, outside professional adventures become more interesting. The result is the same. Both the worker and the firm suffer, and this has repercussions to the wider architectural climate. The question becomes, what does a traditional architecture firm offer the Generation Y employee to keep them focused on the firm’s needs and goals?

A good salary, or at the very least a non-insulting one is important. This will decrease the probability of Generation Y actively seeking non-firm revenue streams. Know that your employees have much more access to what the going rates are (all one has to do is look at the first half of this issue for proof). In many ways, especially as the economy picks up, this will just be the ante to play.

The best employees will need to be paid what they are worth, but quite honestly that’s not enough. Maybe this is a Generation Y thing. Maybe not. Furthermore if policies continue in the current direction, healthcare might actually divorce itself from employment, removing one more traditional benefit firms have to offer Generation Y employees. Likewise, appropriate titles and recognition are positives, but these definitely have diminishing returns. And can be seen as hollow if they are used to placate, pander, or distract from other missing offers. Firms need to look beyond extrinsic rewards and towards intrinsic ones.

The path to licensure is the biggest reward a traditional firm can offer. If a young, bright-eyed Generation Y twenty-something decides to forgo the prototypical architectural career path, they will also be forced to find creative ways to get licensed. Or more likely just forget about getting licensed. Which is unfortunate and undermines the health of our profession. Instead firms need to think about how they can offer these insatiable go-getters the opportunities and entrepreneurial outlets they crave while also helping them move towards licensure (oh, and I guess fulfill the responsibilities of a less experienced employee). Unfortunately many of my contemporaries, myself included, see working at traditional firms as a requirement to check off in order to get licensed. Assistance in getting licensed needs to change from being a barrier to an opportunity. A firm must be active in this process and not just assisting the Generation Y employee in jumping through hoops. Because if that’s all the relationship is, then the firm is just helping the employee leave sooner.

Loyalty in Generation Y (much like Generation X) is a tricky subject. None of us believe we’ll have the same job for the rest of our lives. Probably not even one career. That’s not because we are disloyal, but because we are not hopeful. If a job fulfills the right needs, this generation can be extremely loyal. Therefore one thing leaders need to provide is hope and truth. Generation Y architects could use a dose of the first and can handle the later. The oldest of us have vague memories of the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Our adulthood coincided with Autumn 2001… the rest didn’t even get a childhood free from September 11th. So yes, on one hand we’re a generation that grew up with a digital childhood, but we also are a generation that dealt with some world redefining events sooner than we should have.

Consciously or not, the rising stars of Generation Y think of themselves as a Brand. Most of us grew up labeled in one way or another. The smart kid. The artsy kid. The musician. Sometimes proscribed, other times self-defined. We evolve these labels as we get into the workforce. Much time is spent discussing this generation’s need for approval and grades/feedback. But I think part of what drives that is the need to reinforce or verify these subtle proto-brands that we developed in our childhood and student life. A firm that takes this concept of self-branding seriously, not just for the current group of rainmakers, but for every employee, especially those from Generation Y, will reap huge rewards.

There is risk involved. Someone can develop their brand through design or writing or by promoting the firm with zero experience in those areas because the barriers are low or non-existent. Generation Y’s relationship with technology makes these and other opportunities easy. Of course that doesn’t mean what they produce will be good. It might be detrimental to the firm.

A Generation Y intern or young architect in his eagerness might do something really stupid on the company blog or YouTube Channel. But that fear, uncertainty, and dread is no excuse to hold back. These risks and opportunities just require better and more thoughtful leadership. Better mentorship. More communication. From day one the firm needs to focus on sharing its ideals and goals with every staff member. Because every staff member, especially the younger ones, has a lot of power. And conversely the firm has a lot of ability to discover and shape the budding personal brands.

While giving a young staff member the support to grow the firm in new directions, true mentorship is critical. Passing on of knowledge. Sharing of how the firm works. Not being false or pandering. As mentioned earlier, this generation has more access than ever before. If you don’t know the needs and goals of the Generation Y staff, there will be trouble. Sure there will be employees who will just be happy to have a job and do what they are told. But they are neither the future leaders or future problems.

These others are the ones you need to connect with and help. Find ways to bring them into all aspects of the profession that they are interested in. Yes it means swallowing your pride. And giving young staff opportunities you had to fight years and years to get. But remember that the entry bar is so low now. The opportunities out there might not be great to start, but they are attainable. And beyond this, the only other leverage you have is an NCARB-approved path to licensure. That might sound harsh and fatalistic. And it should. There are enough other pressures to the practice of architecture and to the traditional firm structure (which are outside the scope of this article) that the continued loss of top talent should not be an additional stressor.

By helping these young staff pursue these various outlets within the firm structure, leaders can help the Generation Y staff to graft their brand to the firm. This offers many opportunities for firms to evolve and grow in new business directions. While there are short term factors that effect this situation — the graduates who will fail to get into the profession, the pressure for young architects to ride the wave of economic growth to start their own firms—integrating Generation Y is a long term issue that will be endemic for many years to come.

Upon reading all this, one might conclude that these issues are the same for every employee, of every generation. While these pressures might be more obvious in Generation Y, making the stakes higher, these same opportunities are now available to every employee. Non-digital natives are adapting too. Turning their creative energies in new directions. For every dozen Generation Y following this path, I know of a growing number of others following suit. For architecture firms to keep Generation Y employees content, and a growing number of employees of other generations as well, they need to understand how the world has changed. How access and opportunities are different than they were in the past. This means firms need to reevaluate what they have to offer staff of this and future generations. Every subsequent generation will be filled with digital natives, people comfortable in taking advantage of social technology to further their goals, both private and professional. This isn’t just an issue of young versus old, but an issue of 20th century companies versus 21st century employees. 

Jared Banks currently lives in Minnesota with his wife and two young daughters. Some days he’s an Architect who writes. Other days he’s a Writer who dreams about architecture. Learn more by visiting his blog at www.shoegnome.com.