Lawyers, doctors and train drivers are paid more than architects. Collective action is needed to redress the balance says Mark Middleton

Mark Middleton, Grimshaw

Mark Middleton, Grimshaw

Earlier this year, the Office of National Statistics produced its largest ever survey of annual salaries by profession. It looked at earnings from over 21 million people and ranked them. Stockbrokers were highest paid with an average annual salary of £133,000, company CEOs at £107,000 and pilots third at £90,000. Architects were in 22nd place at £43,000, below both train drivers who were 15th at £47,000 and tax experts 17th on £46,000. If we look at the two professions which are similar to architecture in their path to qualification, the legal and medical professions, we see that lawyers are in seventh place at £73,000 and doctors are eighth at £69,000. The pay gap of 70% and 60% is staggering.

The large difference in salaries relative to other comparable professions is not surprising to anyone, but I am perturbed that pay debates about the profession currently are focused upon part 1 salaries and not the profession as a whole. Of course all part 1 architectural assistants should get the living wage and in London that equates to just under £20,000 annually, but really the focus of both the RIBA and the profession should be on improving wages for all architectural employees.

In recent debates it has been suggested that our inability to pay the living wage and improve salaries across the board is somehow down to our lack of business acumen as a profession. The assumption is that practices already receive enough net revenue to pay all our staff higher salaries and it is merely our profligacy as business owners that stops us from doing this and meeting our moral obligations around the living wage.

What business training we get currently is left to on-the-job training or post qualification CPD programmes which can only serve to put lipstick on the gorilla of our formal training

Whilst I agree that alongside the erosion of all formal useful technical instruction over the past 20 years at architectural schools, nearly all students receive little or no formal training in the business of architecture. This deficit not only serves to reinforce professional stereotypes but also undermines our credibility in the construction industry. It is my considered opinion that architectural schools are crying out for an architectural commerce module, run by architects in practice. What business training we get currently is left to on-the-job training or post qualification CPD programmes which can only serve to put lipstick on the gorilla of our formal training.

Demonstrably, commercial training and awareness is an issue but there’s a bigger problem facing all of us; the profession doesn’t generate enough income through its fees. The Centre for Policy Studies recently revealed that senior lawyers in the City of London were charging over £1000 per hour for their services, and they charge for every single hour they work. As a comparison, senior partners in architectural firms struggle to charge 10-20% of the figure lawyers charge and this comes after a raft of pro bono work to get the commission in the first place. This issue doesn’t begin with our training or even our business acumen, it is much simpler than that, we don’t charge enough for the services we provide and the value we bring.

We give away our creativity for free, manage change badly and we don’t think twice about cutting each other’s throats to get a commission. In truth, it’s only clients that gain anything because each time architects do this it merely drives down the overall level of fees for everyone. The issue is prescient because greater expectations for training, education and social welfare for our staff are being passed onto architectural business by our government and with it larger financial burdens. However the reality is that current fee levels make it increasingly difficult to be financially successful and socially responsible to our staff.

When the RIBA abolished its mandatory fee scales in 1982 and stopped publishing its recommended table in 1992 it not only removed our collective understanding of fee levels for the profession but it also turned its back on its responsibility to protect how the profession values itself. I am not advocating a return to mandatory fee scales but there must be a way to establish minimum levels of fees for our services for different sectors and scales that all chartered practices sign up to. It shouldn’t be beyond a profession with a legally protected title and an established professional body to find a way to protect our collective position, and in doing so will be able to meet and exceed obligations to staff which will also benefit our clients.

Maybe this is all fuelled by the zeitgeist of social responsibility but I see no other way to improve the current situation than by collective action and the RIBA seems best placed to do this. It needs to act as our trade union and should be looking to improve the livelihood of the profession while protecting the basic terms and conditions of its members. This could genuinely be a catalysing moment for the architects and our institution, and now more than ever it’s time to collectively bargain our way to a better position.