What are the costs of unpaid staff? Warwick Mihaly considers the complicated issue of unpaid internships and argues that the profession simply cannot afford it. 

Mihaly Slocombe studio.

Last week a recent architecture graduate from the University of Melbourne, Graham Bennett, asked via twitter what his social network thought about working for free. The barrage of responses from architects and commentators, myself included, was rapid and a little outraged:

“It’s illegal.” – Claire Hosking

“It’s both illegal and illogical: if a practice needs you to do work, it should also be earning fees to pay you.” – Warwick Mihaly

“Students and graduates working for free endangers sustainability of honest practice.” – Melonie Bayl-Smith

“It reinforces poor business practices by architects! Morally and economically dumb.” – Charity Edwards

“You will learn more about architecture getting paid to push a lawn mower than working as an unpaid intern.” – Clinton Cole

“If students and graduates aren’t getting paid, or are getting underpaid, it’s time to name and shame!” – Gintas Reisgys

“Revolution!” – Justine Clark

Though it’s possible that those with dissenting opinions were either too sheepish to contribute, or entirely absent from this particular network, the above comments reveal agreement among practitioners that graduates working for free is inappropriate and unethical.1 This is echoed in the excellent speech given by the Australian Institute of Architects Victoria Chapter President, Jon Clements, at this year’s state architecture awards, where he condemned the retention of unpaid staff. He asked us to consider the “progressive compromise of our profession that results if we reduce the costs of delivering our services to unsustainable levels based on inappropriate employment conditions”. Despite this, and despite the clear position of the Fair Work Act 2009 that all Australian workers must receive a minimum wage, we know it happens.2 We know that in some practices graduates work for free, are underpaid, or work long hours without overtime.

The conditions that encourage this behaviour are embedded into the very fabric of contemporary architecture practice, making them hard to comprehend and even harder to remedy. There is insufficient scope within this article to meaningfully unravel these conditions, however I offer the following broad observations:

Supply currently outstrips demand.

The value of building activity in Australia since June 2008 has remained stagnant, yet there are around 1,000 students that graduate from Australian architecture schools each year.3 To put this into perspective, since 2008 the architecture profession has swelled by nearly 5,000 new architecture graduates or approximately half the number of currently registered architects.4 As Clements put it, the architecture profession is increasingly forced to compete for slices of a shrinking pie.

Leading up to the global financial crisis, demand for new buildings was high, and the Melbourne skyline seemed to be decorated with as many cranes as skyscrapers. In 2008, enthusiasm for the construction boom led to Monash University opening Victoria’s fourth and Australia’s seventeenth accredited architecture school. Despite the clear downturn in the construction industry since the exhaustion of Prime Minister Rudd’s 2009 economic stimulus package, the schools continue to pour out graduates.

Architects are undervalued.

From my experience within our architecture practice, and according to the anecdotal reports of colleagues, architectural fees are under constant siege: by local Councils whose projects are procured according to fee competition; by residential clients who are unable to distinguish architectural services from those offered by draftspeople; by developers who prioritise the cost and timeliness of a project over design quality; and most disconcertingly, by architects looking to undercut one another. It is no coincidence that when the client sits down at the table with her architect, engineer, project manager, town planner and quantity surveyor, it is the architect who is earning the lowest hourly rate.

It can be argued therefore that it is only natural that a profession as financially squeezed as ours will pass on its own poor remuneration to its staff. My Career analysis confirms this: in the third quarter of 2013, architects were amongst the most poorly paid of all construction occupations.5 Our average salaries were less than those of all other sub-sectors save interior designers and draftspeople, and as little as half those of project and construction managers.

Architects work for free all the time.

In addition to inadequate fees, we spend a sizeable portion of our time doing work for free. We meet with potential clients, we enter design competitions, we undertake unsolicited projects, we write blogs, we do work for our families, and we offer opinions around Sunday barbecues. Some of this we do for the love of architecture, but all of it we do because the success of our practices relies heavily and somewhat frustratingly on serendipity. Every interaction we have with other people, no matter how innocuous, might lead to a future project. As such, we are obliged to treat each opportunity as though it will.

I like to call this the long play. It is a strategy that relies on the prolific commitment to loss leaders: time spent willingly and for free now so that paying work may eventuate later. Since we inhabit a working environment where loss leaders are necessary for survival, who are we to criticise graduates from exercising the same long-range strategy?

Architects are not businesspeople.

Our savvy engagement with the long play aside, the architecture profession is dogged by a collective reputation as poor businesspeople. We barely know how to keep our invoicing straight, let alone appreciate the complexities of employee rights and ethical business conduct. This may in part be because many architects are in business to make buildings, not the other way around: we feel that business is for the bankers and accountants, we just want to get on with the real job of architecture.

So, it is entirely feasible that architecture practices entertain the idea of volunteer staff because we don’t know any better. Perhaps, when we are regularly bombarded by graduates offering their time for free, temptation gets the better of us. For architects with strong design reputations, this is particularly true: working for a local starchitect carries a great deal of prestige so graduates seek them out even at the cost of lower salaries.

Graduates want to get ahead.

In our currently downturned economic environment, competition for scarce graduate architect positions is inevitably fierce. It is not enough to finish top of the class, nor have an impressive portfolio: graduates feel the need to think outside the box to obtain employment.

In email correspondence following his controversial Twitter query, Bennett noted that his lack of experience and contacts is holding him back from finding employment. He would be happy to sacrifice pay for 3 – 6 months to gain that experience. He also pointed out that while working for free does not necessarily assign appropriate value to his time, it’s better than not working at all. A discussion with my Masters level Design Thesis students at the University of Melbourne revealed similar sentiments. While all were opposed in principle to working for free, deeper probing revealed that some were prepared to entertain it under certain circumstances i.e. working for the right architect, for a limited time, or with a guarantee of fast-tracked registration.

These conditions do not justify working for free, but they do serve to muddy the waters somewhat. It seems that the current economic climate is forcing the architecture profession into a tight corner (desperate times call for desperate measures) and I am left somewhat less certain about my position on this issue than when I first offered my quick response to Bennett’s tweet.

Importantly, what is revealed is that unpaid work is not a standalone issue: it is wound up with a plethora of other concerns, none of which can be solved on their own. Given this entrenched complexity, where and how could we possibly intervene to affect positive change? Do we tell the graduates struggling to find work to stop offering their time for free? Do we tell the architects whose fees are a fraction of their construction industry contemporaries to stop accepting them? Do we tell the universities whose federal funding is ever diminishing to reduce the size of their classes? Do we tell the profit-motivated construction industry to improve its valuation of the architecture profession at large?

But what about ethics?

There are no easy answers, but perhaps we don’t need them. Engaging unpaid workers has an ethical dimension that precedes any legal or economic influence. As professionals and as human beings, it is imperative that we conduct ourselves to the highest possible standard of social responsibility. Profiting from the free labour of staff does not accord with this responsibility, with our collective position as design and built environment leaders, or within the constraints of fair and decent behaviour. In ethical terms, it is much simpler to determine the correct course of action.

Any employer is in a position of power over her employees and as such has a duty of care to ensure their financial livelihood. As a colleague remarked to me, the limited experience of the graduate architect means she can only base her opinions on a restricted understanding of the socioeconomic framework in which she is hoping to work. The long play might be suitable for the principal of an architecture practice, because there is a clear understanding of the associated risks and an explicit transaction between the work done for free now and paying work received later. But a graduate is not yet fully equipped to foresee or extract the benefits from this transaction: what’s stopping her employer from accepting six months of free labour and then dumping her for a newer, fresher face?

Proponents for unpaid, studio-based internships might argue that it takes upwards of twelve months before a graduate is able to contribute financially to a practice anyway: why should we have to spend large amounts of time training graduates and pay them too? I return to the imbalance of power in the employer / employee relationship: the opportunity for exploitation is too easy. There is little preventing an employer from neglecting her role of stewardship, and it takes a particularly gutsy graduate to voice dissatisfaction with bad treatment. The Association of Consulting Architects warns against this outcome, citing expert legal advice from DLA Piper: “Where the arrangement between an architecture practice and an unpaid student takes on the characteristics of an employer-employee relationship, he or she may be owed minimum entitlements”.6 What was initially promised as an unpaid internship too easily devolves into a position with the same responsibilities as any other paid employee. Even though the graduate may still learn a great deal, there is no guarantee of it, no regulated criteria by which to judge progress, and no way to enforce a commitment to a paying position at the end. Perhaps the introduction of a formal internship period under the oversight of the various state registration boards could alleviate these issues, but I know of no plans to implement such a scheme.

Discussing this issue earlier in the year on The Architects on Triple R, architecture critic Rory Hyde raised a further ethical criticism of the practice, noting that unpaid graduate positions bear an inexcusable social inequality.7 In Japan, where starchitects are numerous, unpaid positions are commonplace and working hours are intolerably long, only the independently wealthy can afford to gain the necessary work experience. Poorer or unsupported architecture graduates, no matter how brilliant, are excluded from the best design studios because they can’t afford to both work for free and feed themselves. Transported to Australia, a country that rightly prides itself on its egalitarian values, this scenario is deeply unsettling.

We abolished slavery, set a minimum wage and established a 38-hour working week for good reasons, in short: to protect the quality of life of the individual. We were all graduates once, and have all benefited greatly from the generosity and tutelage of our own early employers. As we progress through our careers and move into positions of greater power, we need to protect and nurture our profession’s youngest members.

For me, the contemporary conditions that facilitate unpaid staff are not relevant, because the ethical position is clear: free labour might be tempting to offer and hard to refuse, but it serves the interests of neither graduates nor architects. As Clements suggested to the gathered crowd at this year’s awards, unpaid work fails to protect the future robustness of the architecture profession. He asked, “At what point do practices forget the real cost of the professional services that we should be expected to deliver? Do they stop to consider where the industry will be one year, two years or ten years down the track?”8 If we are interested in the built environment, in good quality architecture, and in sustaining the profession for ourselves and for future generations of architects, we must promote a financial framework in which we are paid what we are worth to do the work that needs doing.

How this might be achieved is a subject for another day, though it’s safe to say that procurement methods for both public and private sector work, partnership arrangements on large projects, the financial structure of fee agreements, and the scope of services offered by architects are all in need of renovation. The improvement of public advocacy and our roles beyond the construction industry, in politics, media and education, is essential. Representational bodies must also play an important role. The Royal Institute of British Architects is taking a stand, warning last year that “practices which take on unpaid students will be stripped of their accreditation”.9 Will the Australian Institute of Architects get behind their Victorian Chapter President and take a similarly visionary position?

We may not be able to encourage Bennett and his fellow graduates to stop offering their time for free. We may not be able to prevent individual architecture practices from accepting unpaid labour. We may not be able to instruct the universities to reduce their class sizes. But we can and should work towards realigning our perceived value within the construction industry and the broader Australian experience. This is the break in the cycle our profession sorely needs, the one that will reverberate through all the complexity of our contemporary condition: it will help architects earn what we’re worth, ensure our graduates are paid fairly and allow us to keep doing what we do best.

This post is co-published with Panfilocastaldi, the blog by Mihaly Slocombe. 

  1. By graduates, I refer also to student architects and other junior architecture employees.
  2. Fair Work Act 2009Commonwealth Law ID C2013C0049. National minimum wage entitlements are further described on the website of the Fair Work Ombudsman.
  3. For the June 2008 quarter, the total value of Australia-wide building activity was $20.5b. For the June 2013 quarter, the total value was $20.3b. Building Activity, Australia; report #8572.0; Australian Bureau of Statistics; June 2008 and June 2013. Graduating numbers are from Gill Matthewson; Updating the numbers, part 1: at schoolParlour; January 2013.
  4. There are currently 9,956 registered architects in Australia. Gill Matthewson; Counting registered architects – no easy matterParlour; January 2013.
  5. Construction, Building and Architecture Salary Centre; My Career; September 2013.
  6. Association of Consulting Architects Australia, “Internships Update”, Communiqué, June 2013.
  7. Simon Knott, Stuart Harrison, Christine Philips and Rory Hyde; Vic Awards 2013; Triple R, The Architects; Episode 374; July 2013.
  8. Jon Clements; The two faces of architectureParlour; June 2013.
  9. Mark Wilding; Pay interns or lose accreditation, RIBA tells architectsBD Online; June 2012.