Monday21 August 2017

Dear Matthew: Should I offer myself for unpaid work to get proper experience?

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BD’s agony uncle takes a realistic approach to the moral dilemma of whether to do unpaid work

Question: I graduated last year from a London university, and am not having much luck finding an architectural job. I spent the first half of the year travelling, paying my way with bar work. Since I got back, I have had some work, but just a little. I am lucky that my uncle lives in London and has let me a room rent free. Should I offer myself for unpaid work to get proper experience?

Answer: I imagine we would all say that working for nothing is neither morally right nor right for your morale. But this column isn’t here to thump the table about who is at fault and say what should be done. It’s about helping you with your immediate problem.

Things are bad for all graduates but particularly architects, churned out of schools each summer to a workforce that does not need them and a profession where remuneration is already skewed by firms routinely working speculatively (therefore free) in the hope of winning jobs.

Matthew Turner

Architect Matthew Turner of buildingonarchitecture.com
has worked at a range of offices as well as being a client adviser, project manager and competition juror

So, faced with unemployment, the realist in me would say it is much better to be working than not. Many opportunities for proper jobs aren’t advertised for fear of being inundated with applications. So, as long as you are hardworking and talented, it may be worth getting your foot in the door in a good practice with the hope that it quickly turns into a real job.

The power of brand is such that a stint in a well-known office can be career enhancing, with the exploitation working both ways. I know a couple of now successful architects who benefited from having a starchitect on their CV right at the beginning of their careers, despite the job being no more than a couple of months and probably little more than photocopying.

With the chance to live subsidised in London, you are quite right to think yourself lucky. So if you do chose to work for free, I’d advise it is only worth it if you go for the best, work hard to impress and above all keep it to a limited time. More than a couple of months on very low or no pay is really not good for morale or career.

Remember there is another option — go do something else instead. Unlike a footballer or a pilot, your personal expiry date need not be age related, you still have many years to practise. In fact, a “hybrid” architectural career could be a canny move.

Approach the lack of openings as an opportunity rather than someone’s fault and, who knows, a spell as a salesman or a blogger or a facilities manager may well lead you back to much more interesting architecture-related areas in the future, with more marketable, specialised skills than your more conventional contemporaries.



Email dearmatthew@ubm.com
To ask a question, share your views or read more advice, go to bdonline.co.uk/dearmatthew



Readers' comments (7)

  • very very sound advice.
    Adrian Watson

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  • SomeoneStoleMyNick

    Never work for nothing. Working for nothing creates a precedent. If one person does it, others will then be expected to do it too.

    In economic terms, the value of work done for nothing is - nothing.

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  • How do you square that with being a chartered practice???

    Declaration No. 15.
    I commit to paying national minimum wage to students of architecture working with the practice, who are undertaking experience which complies with the RIBA’s practical training rule, and whom are completing appropriate records on the RIBA’s PEDR website.

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  • I have to say that the level of applications we receive from students for both paid and unpaid work is quite depressing. We have taken the stance that it is not right to take people on without paying wages and in fact dont even look at cv's for people who would work for nothing as it gives the feeling of desperation rather than a positive impression.
    Matthews point about looking at alternatives is very useful, I know a number of people who I studied with who have successful side line businesses as graphic designers, web designers and also crafts people.
    Dont think that your skills arent valuable even though you cant get a job in architecture.

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  • if you have the luxury of working for free, as your accommodation is paid for. why not get a few friends that are in the same position together and start producing work for the many free competitions going. Thus, improving your portfolio, experience and knowledge by research into the projects, and showing initiative.

    That is going to be ware more valuable than doing the photocopying or working for free for a few months?!

    plus your not adding to the continual decline in wages as a direct result of people working for free to gain experience....

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  • Firstly, I agree, the reality of surviving a large number of years at university, without a salary and borrowing athroughout, should not be 'rewarded' with unpaid work. Its just not right.

    The hurdle of the part III, however, does require working under the guidance of a registered architect... is there a balance in the mid-ground?

    John Mortis makes a very good point, there are a number of great competitions out there, that many currently engaged architects will not have the time and resources that you have to commit to the endeavour.

    A large number of competitions are free to enter, or at least not excessively expensive, and allow digital submissions saving the expense on getting boards printed, mounted and encapsulated and then couriered to the destination.

    If it was me, maybe work one or two days a week in practice 'to keep your hand in' and spend the rest of the week on your own portfolio of competitions and bids. You never know your employer may let you have access to some resources you wouldn't have on your own...

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  • sound advice

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